Interfaith Service and Vigil Protest Laws Criminalizing Homelessness

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The Berkeley City Council is once again moving to enact laws more cruel and dehumanizing than ever. It’s not the first time that they will have passed laws increasingly targeting homeless people. Panhandling within 10 feet of a parking pay station would be a crime. Putting personal objects in planters or within three feet of a tree well would be a crime. Poor people will have to have a tape measure handy to make sure they’re not committing a crime. As a matter of fact just about anything that a homeless person needs for sleeping, tent, mat, sleeping bag, cannot be left on any sidewalk any time of day. Nor can personal items be attached to trees, planters, parking meters etc. etc. and oh yes, it would be a crime to sit against a building.
Voices of protest are being heard. Members of the interfaith coalition of more than 40 congregations, including Buddhists, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Unitarians, Christians, Muslims, Jews, are speaking out against the city’s criminalization of homelessness. On April 9 they held a protest ‘in solidarity with homeless people’ at the downtown Berkeley BART Plaza. Starting at 5 o’clock with a meal and an interfaith service it concluded with a sleep-out at the Plaza until 6:30 Friday morning.
By 5 o’clock Thursday a good number of people had gathered. Several rows of chairs had been set up, a colorful banner made by young people at Youth Spirit Art Works hung and the speaker system set up. The Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship provided the sound system and chairs for people attending the service.
J.C. Orton of the Catholic Worker was there serving a hearty vegetable soup and Virginia Hollins-Davidson of the Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship, with a nod to the holiday tradition, served matzos and cups of grape juice.
Rayven Wilson and Carena Ridgeway, young leaders in the Youth Spirit Artworks program introduced the speakers. There were more than twenty, representing the many faith communities in the coalition. Their messages were inspiring, calling for people to work for a society more just and compassionate. Some applied lessons from the scriptures. Rabbi Michael Lerner read “when you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creatures, then shall your light shine in darkness”
Muslim Minister Keith Mohammad suggested that the world today operates like a Monopoly game, ruled by those with money. There is food, clothing and shelter for everyone “but we’re in a world where greed has become a way of life.”
At several times during the service the assembly was led in song. Copies of lyrics of old familiar songs had been handed out earlier.
The closing talk was given by Friar Louie Vitale, a man much loved and respected for his many years of activism in the struggle for peace and justice.
Preparations began for the night-long vigil. Candles were lit. There were more songs and more people spoke. University Lutheran Church Reverend Sharon Stalkfleet focused particularly on the vulnerability of homeless youth and Terry Messman, editor of Street Spirit newspaper ,touched on issues covered by the paper. Singing “We Shall Overcome” marked the end of the formal program. As people settled down for the night an informal “open mike” ensued. People talked of all sorts of subjects, one man appeared with a guitar and delighted everybody with his singing. There were some funny and some very touching stories. A young man told of just being 24 hours out of the hospital for drug use, “I just went to my first AA meeting” he said with pride, but, and his tone changed, he had no place to go. He was out of the hospital – and out on the street.
Thirty to forty people settled in for the vigil. Homeless people from the street joined with members of the faith community. Some people left after a time, some came later. A dozen or more stayed till it ended at 6 o’clock in the morning.
Virginia Hollins-Davidson of the Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship is one who stayed. Asked about her experience she said “For me it was exhilarating!” In spite of the noise and the bright lighting in the Plaza she managed to sleep for almost 4 hours. She was prepared with warm clothes and three sleeping bags so she didn’t feel the cold concrete pavement. And she felt safe. “Some people would probably be wary of being out there with people who are actually homeless – there was one guy next to me who clearly was chronically homeless. He had such a gentle look on his face …” They exchanged names and talked a bit. She felt totally safe and secure. In the morning those who had stayed shared coffee and pastries that had been donated. “Then we had a prayer and cleaned up. There was a real sense of camaraderie. It was great.”
Sally Hindman, organizer of the event, also stayed the night. She had quite a different take on the experience. “The situation on Shattuck is a real scene. … From my one night out I don’t know how anybody gets sleep out there.” She described the noise, the bright lights, the cold, people dealing with mental health issues. “There were some scary looking people out there.”
That’s why people chose to sleep in doorways but then they are at risk of being attacked and having their possessions stolen. Just one night was a powerful lesson in how miserable it is to be homeless , Hindman points out. And for a homeless person it can take 2 years of miserable nights to get into affordable housing.
Looking at areas of conflict in the world like the Middle East Hindman suggests an interesting comparison. “It’s like being a refugee in a camp. And you’re not even in a camp with enough other people to provide a level of security. Like we have thousands of people in our country that are refugees just living in our doorways.”

Crossposted from The Berkeley Daily Planet.