This week, Keith McHenry is sitting by the phone waiting for a call to come down to Superior Court in San Francisco to face a felony charge arising from his efforts to feed the city's homeless. San Francisco has piled other felony charges on him. So this Good Samaritan faces a possible life sentence under California's three-strikes-and-you're-out law.
For feeding homeless people in San Francisco, McHenry has been arrested 92 times since 1988, though never tried and never convicted. Right now, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva has his treatment under review.
Anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 people in San Francisco are in shelters or flophouse hotels or making do in alleys and parks. The homeless, the panhandlers and kindred sidewalk sentries are disturbing to many folks, most of all the downtown businesses who want them off Union Square, Civic Center and the parks. Let 'em go someplace else, like Oakland.
In fact, as in many other cities across the country, the homeless are a mixed bunch, very much the same as the homeless in another tough era for poor folk, described by Sir Thomas More in his "Utopia," published in 1516. Discussing vagrants in 16th-Century England, More talked of people looking for work but not finding it, vets ("those who often come home crippled from foreign or civil wars") and assorted victims of the profit motive. In More's time, it was the enclosures. Today, it's jobs heading south.
Then, as now, homeless included the insane, either left to wander the streets or, at the discretion of arresting officers, dropped off at the hospital or the jail.
Mayor Frank Jordan's Matrix program, launched in 1993, saw the San Francisco homeless hassled viciously, their bundles of belongings and carts tossed into garbage trucks. Harassment extended to McHenry and his fellow members--among whom are homeless people--of Food Not Bombs. Their crime has been to feed the homeless and to assert that homeless people are full citizens with full citizens' rights.
Out of 720 arrests and an expenditure by the city of $5 million on homeless hassling, only one Food Not Bombs volunteer, Robert Norse Kahn, has gone to trial, handed 60 days (being appealed) for giving a woman a bagel in one of the city parks. On May 10, McHenry was charged with felony possession of a milk crate while staffing a literature table.
The charge for which McHenry awaits imminent trial stems from an incident on May 13, when he and a 71-year old male companion entered the office of Supervisor Barbara Kaufman in City Hall to distribute literature about their organization.
Nancy Kitz, an aide to Kaufman, demanded that they get out. McHenry recalls that he proffered a leaflet, saying, "Here, you might as well take one." The aide slammed the door and McHenry says he put out his hand to stop it from hitting his friend. The glass hit his hand and severed an artery. Claiming McHenry had punched out the glass, police arrested him and charged him with felony assault.
In "Utopia," More wrote that "it would have been much better to provide some means of getting a living, that no one should be under this terrible necessity first of stealing and then of dying for it."
Now, as then, there aren't enough jobs, and many cities and states are deciding that the way to deal with the sort of social collapse represented by a homeless person is to criminalize poverty. Close down public assistance, close your eyes and hope that the homeless, the single mothers, the down and out will disappear.
Across New York City there are thousands of abandoned buildings taken over by the city that homeless people rehab and move into. The city sells the sites to speculators, who have the police kick out the homesteaders, then raze the structures. So much for allowing the helpless to help themselves.
Sure, a persistent panhandler or a scrofulous vagrant can be tiresome, even frightening. But so long as the prevailing social attitude is to answer all problems with prisons, there will be more panhandlers and more vagrants.
The historian Gaston Roupnel reports that citizens of 17th-Century Dijon, in France, were forbidden to feed the poor: "In the 16th Century, the beggar or vagrant was fed and cared for before he was sent away. In the early 17th Century, he had his head shaved. Later on, he was whipped; and the end of the century saw the last word in repression--he was turned into a convict."
Of course, this kind of progress occurs more quickly now than it did three centuries ago.