November 11, 2011
By Sarah Morrigan
The #OccupyPortland Interfaith Guild of Chaplains
As the @Alternet report dated on Oct. 23, 2011 has noted, "[T]he Occupy Wall Streeters are beginning to discover what homeless people have known all along--that most ordinary activities are illegal when performed in public." (http://www.alternet.org/story/152837/how_homelessness_became_an_occupy_wall_street_issue?page=entire)
One of the major ways that the mainstream media focused on in order to discredit the #OccupyPortland movement was to launch a coordinated smear campaign using the "chronically homeless" and "street youth" as the majority representation of the Occupation. Whether it was true or not is irrelevant; what is relevant here is that how "homelessness" can be used by the media and politicians to launch a successful campaign against anything. Time after time, the same kind of campaign is launched against a specific neighborhood, a social service agency, or even against a for-profit business (such as stores that accommodate the homeless too kindly). The real issue here is that deep-seated hatred, hostility and prejudice against the unhoused people exist, along with an associated stereotype of "the homeless" to fuel this hatred, loathing and fear among the people -- not unlike similar stereotype and prejudice against certain racial and ethnic groups, or against the sexual minorities, or against members of certain religions.
During my occupation at the #OccupyPortland encampment, I discovered an interesting evidence of this deep-seated and largely unexamined prejudice. I am involved with various programs at a certain Episcopal church in Portland, Oregon, that is generally viewed as upscale and with mostly affluent membership. To its credit, it has a large-scale outreach ministry to provide food to both unhoused and housed low-income people alike. Yet, outside the outreach work, it has been always clear to me that most of its parishioners, as well as its clergy and employees are unfriendly (if not outright hostile) to anyone who are unhoused and dare show up at worship services. People look at them with contempt, follow them around as if they are public enemy number one, keep them at three arms' lengths, and whenever expedient, try to kick them out. I have heard many times from a few of the church's employees that they are tired of "babysitting the homeless."
Yet, on one Sunday I gave a 10-minute presentation on #OccupyPortland and told my story of camping out in a park for four and a half weeks. The crowd applauded. Many commented how proud they were for me doing this, and that they were thankful for me doing what they were unable to do although they wanted to do.
What if I just told walked in and told them that I camp out in a downtown park?
I'm pretty sure they'd give me a scornful look, and shortly after would be escorted out by one of the sextons. No one would probably dare even speak to me.
That Sunday was an epiphany moment. I finally understood what I felt for a long time but was unable to put my finger on.
There is a prejudice, hatred and discrimination.
In the City of Portland, in the State of Oregon, and in the United States of America, the unhoused people are among the last of those who could legally be discriminated against from housing, employment and public accommodation.
In my years of community organizing among the unhoused people, I have heard many, many times that how companies would not hire them because they are "homeless", or how it is far more difficult to rent an apartment even though they have money because they had a history of "homelessness" evidenced by a gap in rental history. As for public accommodation, some shopping malls and businesses are outright hostile to unhoused people and, even when they are paying customers, deny or attempt to deny public accommodation. A certain convenience store chain is notorious for denying sale of alcoholic beverages to unhoused people, even though no state law or regulation mandates it.
While government officials and non-profit executives sell "homelessness" to score political points, build their own legacies and to raise funds, the actual unhoused people are dehumanized, marginalized, disempowered and systemically denied even the most fundamental human rights. The police also profiles and targets the unhoused people, just as they do the people of color and immigrants. The unhoused people are more prone to prolonged incarceration and unfavorable sentences. The unhoused people also are systemically restricted or barred from accessing post office boxes (the post office requires a proof of residence), banking (USA PATRIOT Act requires a proof of residence), and identification card or driving license (which is becoming next to impossible due to the anti-immigrant laws enacted in recent years in the name of the war on terrorism).
Additionally, hate crimes against unhoused people are serious, recurring problems in American cities including Portland, Oregon.
The #Occupy movement brought us to stand in solidarity with unhoused people, the urban nomads, and street dwellers. We must unite to end discrimination against the unhoused people.
We have heard too many times the lip services public officials make to "help the homeless." However, no meaningful advancement is made unless this inequity is addressed and barriers to participating in society are removed by protecting the unhoused individuals from discrimination and hate.
The first step is to push for a city ordinance protecting the unhoused people from discrimination in housing, public accommodation and employment, and also requiring the Portland Police Bureau to keep statistics of hate crimes against the unhoused victims. In Oregon, what is legislated in Portland and Multnomah County becomes state law in a few years. Thus this is an important step to ensure that discrimination and hate against "homeless" individuals end.
* note: I have put "homeless" in quote marks as the word evokes a very negative stereotype which does not reflect the reality. The word "homeless" also overgeneralizes people to the point which individual issues are glossed over based simply on the mode of living. This is no more accurate than using the word "condo-dwellers" or "homeowners" to describe any group of people with different challenges and stories.
This is not an official statement of the Interfaith Guild of Chaplains.