The Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights announced on September 23 that it has sent a strong message to local governments about human rights violations. The action was taken following the presentation of a detailed report and resolution presented to the Commission by Homeless Action!, a homeless rights advocacy group in Santa Rosa. The report cited evidence of systematic and pervasive violations of at least seven articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which safeguards basic standards of living for the health and well-being of people in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability and other circumstances beyond their control.
Human Rights Commission Chair Kevin Jones says that the Commission has heard from many homeless people, activists and policy makers locally and nationwide, as well as having made visits to encampments and shelters. In an official statement to Sonoma County Supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council, Jones declared that “Through these experiences, what is clear to each of us is that members of our community face threats on a daily basis due to lack of shelter and that as a community, we are not meeting our responsibility to provide sufficient resources to ensure that each person’s right to housing is met.” He added that “Further, we have been witness to actions that we believe make individual situations worse among the shelterless, increasing risks to safety and health and reducing any sense of dignity and support of people for whom viable options for housing do not exist.”
Articles 3, 5, 7 and 9 of the Universal Declaration demand equality before the law and right to life, liberty and security and decry inhumane and degrading treatment and punishment as well as arbitrary arrest and detention. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. which prohibits illegal search and seizure, is also violated regularly in cases involving the homeless. In addition, the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment of people, was reaffirmed in September by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. According to Judge Marsha Berzon, sitting, lying and sleeping on the streets is an “unavoidable consequence” of homelessness.” She added that “As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.” Sonoma County estimates that approximately 3,000 local people experience homelessness but there are only 1,000 shelter beds countywide.
Meanwhile, the City of Santa Rosa’s aggressive clearing of a homeless camp off Corporate Center Parkway continues the very human and civil rights abuses the commission decried. According to signed declarations from those affected by a major sweep of RVs, trailers and tents on September 28, Santa Rosa police carried out the following:
1) I took stuff away as I could to my ex’s storage unit he was letting us use, like they’d told us to earlier. My partner was very sick with the flu, but he tried to help. We came back to nothing, even though our friend had been there to guard our stuff. There were piles of trash around the police left alone, but they took our neat piles that were obviously being moved. We lost all our clothes, shoes, coats, phone chargers and cords, speakers, two laptops, papers, all our pet food and gear, all our blankets, and our tent.
2) They ripped my mother’s tent and dragged it and everything in it across the street, and all her things came out and were left in the street. Now I feel really, really lost. We have been gathering and taking things away that were left in loads in this truck.
3) I had to go to the bathroom, so I went to Food Maxx [about a half-mile away. Portable toilets are forbidden by the city in the area]. When I returned, my tent was gone and my things were all over the street. A lot of people lost all of their belongings.
4) They really enjoyed doing that to us. You could tell. I’ve never seen such brutal cruelty, such hateful cops in my whole life. You stand there nearby and laugh, you think it’s so funny.
5) Yesterday (9/26/18, 9:30 p.m.], I was getting ready for work that started at 10 p.m., quickly cleaning myself with a little Dove and water. I was arrested for polluting by I believe [Cotati Police] Officer Kootz. My fiancé tried to film it, her phone was taken away and she protested, so they arrested her for interfering. They took away our phones, but put them in our van instead of bringing them to the jail, and laughed about it. They had the van towed for registration – I just got my paycheck today, we just needed less than $200; we were so close.
6) Catholic Charities, when we need them, are gone. They could give hotel vouchers tonight, there’s not that many of us left on site, it wouldn’t have been that expensive.
7) Lives were destroyed today. My friend is coming out of jail today to nothing. They took everything except what’s in this wheelbarrow. I have no idea where I’m going. I’ll wander around tonight, and figure out what to do tomorrow. I’m worried about my friends ____ and ____. They are elders. My friend ____ is very sick. They’re both in bad health and I don’t know where they are.
The Human Rights Commission adopted the Homeless Action! resolution calling for the immediate granting of amnesty from arrest for sleeping on public property as well as immediate funding and creation of low cost villages with small living structures such as garden shed cottages or tiny houses with security, hygienic facilities, case management and wraparound services. Such villages are enjoying considerable success in Austin, Portland, Seattle, Yolo County and Oakland.
“It’s high time to stop ignoring the elephant in the room,” said Kathleen Finigan, lead writer of the Homeless Action! report. “The system so far has utterly ignored the immediate needs of some 2,000 unsheltered people in this County. The continuous persecution, evictions and arrests of people who have no place to go is nothing other than an inhumane revolving door of perpetual, wretched misery.”