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What about the homeless in our county? 

I screen documentary films in SLO, with permission from either the filmmakers or the distributors. I usually screen them at the SLO Public Library, a great place because of ample seating and the large screen. Typically between 50 and 80 people come to our film screenings.

On Friday night, April 28, I screened two films about homelessness (or “houselessness,� as some advocates prefer). I hadn’t a clue that Cal Poly’s Homeless Awareness Week was happening, as I usually make arrangements two oe three months prior to screening. The event dovetailed nicely with the Awareness Week, since word got out that I was screening these films about the homeless situation and had invited homeless people to attend without charge.

I was hoping that all the publicity, and even a bit on KVEC, would have drawn more people to the library. Only 30 attended, and 15 were homeless. Of the 15 non-homeless people, seven came for credit from a Cal Poly class on Globalization.

The first film, Bums of Paradise, described how homeless people have made a home, called the Albany Encampment, on an abandoned landfill. Rabbit, a homeless person himself who lived there, narrated the film. The film interviews a number of other homeless people trying to find shelter by making structures with concrete, putting up tents, using driftwood, etc. The film portrays a community of trust, a code of ethics, and a caring that evolves through the time spent there. Of course, the police eventually arrive (after about 18 months), and the entire community, Bum’s Paradise, comes to a screeching halt, since the land is to be developed into a park. However, we learned that two years after the homeless community of about 75 people was removed from the site, the land had yet to be developed.

We took a break with a few comments (and plenty of snacks and tea), and then moved onward to the highlight of the evening, a film called Takeover, directed by Peter Kinoy and Pamela Yates, who are also the directors of State of Fear, a film that will be premiered tomorrow (May 19th) at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in Santa Barbara; we happened to screen it in SLO back in March. Some of the financial backing for this film, aside from that of the filmmakers themselves, came from such notables as Bruce Springsteen and Michael Moore.

akeover  describes an orchestrated takeover of abandoned HUD (US government) houses in eight different cities throughout the country. But before taking this desperate action, participants marched 300 miles to Washington, D.C. to voice their concerns. Because of this (and other typical campaign pleas) HUD promised to take a percentage of its budget to build housing specifically for the homeless. But it never happened. They reneged on their “promise.â€? So Takeover films the results. The filmmakers had camera crews in all the cities following the homeless people breaking into the empty houses. We learn of the plight of the people who have decided to take this desperate action, as well as the broken promises, as houses are locked up and abandoned, some to be sold at auction to speculators who would then profit. As one single mother in Philadelphia saw it, “This is our Government and those houses are our homes.â€? Another woman said, “If breaking laws is what you have to do to change them, then that’s what I’ll do.â€? And a man who moved from Tompkins Square Park in New York City to a vacant house said: “I’m dying on the streets. I think that should be against the law.â€?

As expected, the police come in and arrest the homeless people, except in Philadelphia, where the mayor chose not to do HUD’s bidding, telling them that if they wanted to enforce their policies, they would have to get their own federal agents rather than use the city police officers. The end of the film is exhilarating: HUD took responsibility.  “Dignityâ€? shelters were created throughout the country. The people who were jailed were released. Community housing projects were created.

Discussion after the films generated a barrage of stories of abuse, rejections and the reckless injustices that the eight vocal homeless attendees have had to endure. Many told of having to leave shelters or centers for simply asking questions. The authorities, they said, often viewed these questions as “creating a negative atmosphere� and then punished them for it. There was one tale of an advocate who told a number of the homeless that they were “losers� and would never rise above their unfortunate situation! All said that even though shelter food is free, one still has to pay for your utensils. When a son of a homeless mother got accidentally burned in the eye by a cigarette, she said authorities told her she couldn’t call the ambulance, even though the injury happened on the shelter’s property. A mother who has a daughter confined to a wheelchair are both homeless; the daughter is sleeping illegally in a van. When the mother thanked me for the opportunity to speak, I could feel her appreciation profoundly.

Section 8 is a far-off dream for most of these people, since the waiting list is two to three years. According to the five-minute documentary “Will We See Them?� (about SLO’s homeless population, and broadcast for the Board of Supervisors that week), more than 30% became homeless because they could no longer afford the rent, while 28% of homeless in SLO County actually have paid employment!

There was not one official or advocate In the audience who could speak about these peoples’ concerns. The students from Cal Poly’s Globalization class were more stunned than quiet.

At the end of the evening, another homeless person who had been extremely articulate about the guidelines and the injustices that were foisted upon them, thanked us for giving them the space to vent. “I needed to get this off my chest.� I invited them to write their stories in order to document the various injustices and abuse in our own paradise in SLO County. I also mentioned the possibility, since many of them know each other, to form an organization to speak from time to time to members of the community so their voices can be heard. One suggestion was to go before the Board of Supervisors; others said they had tried and were thrown out of chambers.

In a country that is spending two billion dollars a week in its illegal war in Iraq (See “The Spiraling Cost of the Iraq War� at http://www.voanews.com/english/2006-05-02-voa67.cfm.), and where county money is being diverted from social services to such inane police programs as “protecting� us from Mardi Gras partiers, people and organizations need to step up to the plate. We need to investigate our own homeless facilities; we need to listen to the complaints from the homeless people themselves, rather than shutting them up for “creating a negative atmosphere.�

Some factoids: There are 2,408 homeless people in SLO County (as of Oct 25, 2005). 817 are under 21; 114 are senior citizens; 17% are veterans; 42% are female; 28% have paid employment!! More than a third have physical or mental disabilities; 19% are homeless due to domestic violence; 60% have been here for more than five years.

For a more comprehensive account of the local homeless data, see the five-minute film (call 756-5883 for details) or go to the Enumeration Project at http://www.volunteerslo.org/Homeless_Enumeration.pdf. ∆

Bob Banner publishes HopeDance (www.HopeDance.org) and directs the HopeDance FiLM series all year long throughout the county as well as in three other counties. He can be reached at info@hopedance.org. The above films along with 300 other documentaries are housed at the Film Library/Store in SLO. Call 544-9663 for “rental� details.

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