How can we criminalize people for the sole act of living without a home and occupying public space?
OPINION Distant dreams of flowing colored scarves, glowing tie-dyed shirts, and rainbow dashikis commingling with mounds of facial hair and peace signs filled my mind as I walked through a deep recess of quiet green on a hidden trail in Golden Gate Park. It was 7 a.m. I was there to meet Mary X, an OG Summer of Love attendee, as she hastily closed her camp before, as she put it, "the po arrested me and stole all my stuff."
Despite the romantic images of the 1967 events, Mary's campmates black, brown, and white houseless elders, several of whom are veterans of the Vietnam War were barely clothed in soiled flak jackets and torn tie-dyed shirts.
Further shattering the mythos of peace, human love, and community caring, many of these elders sported overlong beards that, unlike those in so many white-ified Jesus pictures, were filled with crumbs and spittle. Their hands were crippled with arthritis and barely able to hold their coffee cups, much less make a peace sign. "I was there," Mary stated plainly, her black eyes searching nervously for the next Department of Public Works truck or park police officer. "I was at the original Summer of Love in 1967." She stopped talking, picked up her backpack, and left without looking back at me.
Mary is a diagnosed schizophrenic, she told me during our original phone call, and like many poor folks in the United States like my poor mama, Dee, who passed away last year she has no money for mental health services. Her indigent program allows her a biannual visit with a disaffected psychiatrist who hands her a medication prescription she can't afford to fill. Her only income is earned from long hours spent collecting cans and redeeming them for small change, very hard work that we at Poor call microbusiness and a line of work that our magazine, in a recent exposé ("The Corporate Trash Scandal," 8/15/07), discovered is more likely to erase our collective carbon footprint that any corporate recycling company.
While Mayor Gavin Newsom continues with his daily sweeps of homeless people in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius writes weekly hit pieces that demonize and lie about the poor folks surviving in public spaces, equating them with the wild coyotes that roam the park. Nevius's hit campaign begs the question for all of us: where is the love?
As thousands celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, how can we criminalize people for the sole act of living without a home and occupying public space? And who should really determine who belongs in open spaces like parks, beaches, streets, and sidewalks?
How have we in the United States come to equate cleanliness with a lack of poor human beings, and how are the people who have come to celebrate the Summer of Love with their trash, picnic baskets, cars, belongings, and recreational drugs any cleaner than the homeless folks who live and work in the park year-round and have nowhere else to go?
Tiny, a.k.a. Lisa Gray-Garcia, is the cofounder of Poor magazine and the Poor News Network (www.poornewsnetwork.org ) and the author of Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America.