By Jack Hamlin
It is happening again. Three years ago we were able to come together as a community to try and begin to resolve the issues surrounding homelessness and the poor in Ocean Beach. I am not so naïve as to look back on that time as “Halcyon Days of Kumbaya,” in O.B. Rather it was a time during which we began to look for solutions, instead of blame and division. But we all have become complacent and are returning to the awful time of “Please Don’t Feed Our Bums.”
It was a subtle trip and that is probably why we have been caught unaware. But the haters just wait for the right opportunity to bring their vitriol back to the surface and make us a divided community once again. Much of it, however, lays firmly at the feet of the San Diego Police Department and its treatment of the homeless and poor.
During the forums three years ago, the police were not barred from participation. We who organized the forums simply requested if they did want to participate, they would have to leave their weapons outside. They refused to do so, and so with their unbending position about “officer safety,” they excluded themselves from a community process. After all, they are the police and we of the public just do not understand. We need men and women with badges and guns to tell us how we should live.
Since the forum I have observed countless incidents in which the police target the homeless and poor of Ocean Beach for no other reason than they are homeless and poor. I have taken the opportunity to talk with those confronted by the police after their contact and the reason is the similar each time, “They told us we fit the description of a guy who (fill in the blank: had a knife, robbed a liquor store, attacked a (fill in the other blank), etc. ).”
The incident which truly solidified my impression of the police attitude toward the homeless and poor occurred at a street festival a couple of years ago. In the middle of the intersection of Bacon and Newport, a drunk, shirtless member of the Hells Angels was snapping his t-shirt at women as they walked past and saying some rather horrible things. Seventy-five feet away, two police officers were busy writing up two homeless men who were sitting on the sidewalk. And when I say writing up, it was not a ticket for an infraction, but what is called a Field Interview (we call it a shakedown). I waited to see what the officers would do, but when they finished with the homeless men they walked right past the Hells Angel and did nothing. You may draw your own conclusion here.
Over the past several months I have observed an increase of police presence in O.B. This presence, however, is targeting the homeless and poor. I have seen two or more patrol cars parked in church parking lots where the poor and homeless typically congregate for meals and services, along with an increase in shake-downs and general harassment. If the slow response by the police to the beating of two homeless men earlier this week had been an isolated incident, then I would not have been so concerned. But it is a general pattern of how these weak and vulnerable members of our society are treated by the most powerful.
And now it becomes acceptable to treat the homeless and poor less than human by those slightly less powerful than the police. A few weeks ago the Peninsula Beacon printed a letter to the editor by an Ocean Beach resident who raged on with so much vitriol at the homeless and poor and those who try to help, I was surprised to see it published. The writer actually suggested the churches in the area were un-Christian because we did not take into account the concerns of the community. First of all, the letter was full of lies, and second, the Peninsula Beacon did nothing in the form of a follow-up to determine if the letter had any basis in fact. One of my co-workers wrote a rebuttal letter, but that has not been published…I was not aware the Union Tribune had acquired the Peninsula Beacon as well. Even in the OB Rag this week, one of the non-resident haters referred to these people as “packs of homeless looking folks (sic).”
The dehumanization of a segment of our society makes it much easier for the general public and law enforcement to target, harass and in the most recent case, attack and injure, with impunity.
Well the final straw for me came last Tuesday night at our bi-monthly Dinner for the Hungry and Food Distribution. Briefly, two police officers entered our church property without warrant and without invite to arrest a man who was talking too loudly. They did so on the private property, on the front steps of the church hall and according to them, to prevent “things” from escalating. They un-arrested, the falsely arrested young fellow within ten minutes, but by then many of those whom we were serving scattered and left the church property. The chilling effect on our ministry is evident by the drop in number of those whom we serve. Instead of a sanctuary and temporary relief from the street, for the police we have become the proverbial barrel in which the fish are found to shoot.
A letter has been sent to Chief Lansdowne demanding an investigation and a request for a sit down to start working together (sans guns), but as with previous requests, I am almost certain he will ignore us. I will forward the letter to the OB Rag and San Diego Free Press when the time I set for Chief Lansdowne to respond passes and he has not responded. Suffice it to say it articulates what has happened our church, a demand for an investigation and an offer to sit down and talk.
Regardless of the outcome, I will continue to serve those in need. It is what I have been called upon to do. No amount of hate or vitriol will deter me. I am, however, tired. Tired of having to defend the rights of people who are in need. Tired of having to defend my right to follow the teachings of my faith free from government intrusion. Tired of being subjected to violations of my right to engage in the practice of my faith. And just plain tired of the hate.
Those are my thoughts…I am sure you have plenty of your own.
In Peace, Jack