Sunday, September 26, 2010

I Learn a Lot From A Walk In People's Park

I was going to post something, but it was too personal, so I will just post this instead, because the more I post the more people read my blog regardless of the quality.

No actually, I do have a story. I walked through People's Park today, where my friends, despite my initial hesitation, started a conversation with a woman whom someone else there had said knows a lot about the park. The conversation, with three residents of People's Park, two of my friends and I, was incredible, and a conversation I wish I had years ago. People's Park, for you readers outside of the 510 area code, is a park in Berkeley where many homeless people live, where there have been contentious politics - can the city develop it (no) can homeless people sleep on the grass (no) etc.

Despite my left wing politics, I (and many residents of Berkeley and San Francisco) have a rather ambivalent attitude towards homeless people. I am not proud of this, but I rarely give homeless people money. I believe it, to a certain extent, when I hear that some people are 'homeless by choice.' I sometimes feel intimidated or sometimes put off by aggressive or physically unwell homeless people on the sidewalk.

It is condescending, I think, to call people articulate, because it implies that you expect they wouldn't be, but the people we talked to were very knowledgeable about issues around homelessness, poverty, development projects and environmental protection, were realistic about what kinds of political compromises they could expect, were well versed in the strategies and tactics of both grassroots mobilization and traditional political lobbying, and were charming and friendly. The differences in their and my expectations of government, and understanding of the best way to get things done was most apparent when they suggested standing on the corner outside a city council meeting and speaking truth to power until someone listened, combined with perhaps writing a letter in Street Spirit, the newspaper by and for homeless people, while I suggested writing a letter to the editor of the SF Chronicle and contacting radio stations, at least including KPFA. I don't really know whose strategies are more effective, and perhaps it is naive of me to think that the Chronicle would publish their letter.

It was also very interesting that despite some radical language around strategies, the people we met had actual policy recommendations that were quite moderate: not evicting people from foreclosed houses, allowing squatting in some empty buildings, only doing sweep the streets style actions when paired with providing housing and other services, and getting rid of sit lie laws. Sign me up!