On September 17, the City’s Waste Reduction and Disposal Division posted notices in East Village that soon “City-owned property will be abated of all waste.” If “items of personal value” were not removed in time, stated the notice, “They will be removed by City forces.”
Five days later, Waste Reduction showed up with garbage trucks on 16th in front of God’s Extended Hand. Several homeless people tell me they were already inside participating in a required prayer service before eating, having left their belongings across the street. They came out to see their sleeping bags, shopping carts, and other items being thrown into the trucks and crushed.
Those who witnessed it say a police car led Waste Reduction’s truck and another trailed it. “They waited until those poor people went in to pray,” says Ross. “The City forces were lying in wait. The sad part is that former Central Division police captain Chris Ball would never have done something like that. He was such a great help to the people down here, and they respected him for it.”
But only weeks ago, Ball was transferred north to a beach community. He was replaced by Captain Mark Jones.
“The changeover in the Central Division was not simple career planning,” says Ross, who claims the department has recently betrayed a realization that taking people’s property was counterproductive. “One woman lost $4000 dentures she was still paying on. Gone in all those people’s belongings were items of sentimental value. A mentally ill woman came to me and asked if she could get pictures of her father and mother back. And worst of all, she and many others had their medications thrown out. Lots of these people don’t operate on all cylinders even while taking their meds. They won’t be able to get new prescriptions anytime soon either. And the City,” asks Ross, “wants to improve the homeless situation by throwing their meds away?
“In defense of the police department,” he continues, “I will say this. For years, the City has failed to adequately address the homeless problem. Then, every once in a while, it tells the police to go out and do something about it.”
The dodgeball approach to homelessness seems to be playing out again as Mayor Sanders tries to put the onus of finding a winter-shelter site on councilmembers, while they in turn have refused to identify possible sites in their districts. So the mayor gave them a list of 27 sites that are spread throughout the city. He demanded they choose one of them by Tuesday of this week.
Councilman Kevin Faulconer made it clear he didn’t want the temporary winter shelter in his downtown district anymore. He offered to allow the long-planned homeless “intake facility” to be built in his district. But he sometimes talks as though the existence of a permanent facility near downtown would be a convenient excuse for bringing back illegal-lodging arrests for those who don’t make it into the shelter.
Faulconer has also said he’s not interested in temporary solutions. Problem is that the permanent shelter is probably four years away.
“We have immediate needs right now,” says David Ross, “and bathrooms are high on the list.” By staking out his Porta Potties for a few hours occasionally and observing their use, Ross has estimated the number of times they have been used in a year. His figure is 130,000 times. “If you brought in moving vans and filled them with the human waste that would otherwise remain outdoors,” he says, “they would haul away 30 tons. But Faulconer isn’t interested in temporary solutions. It would cost the City no more than $40,000 to get the shit off the streets. My problem was that I didn’t ask for $40 million. Then I’d have probably had it the following afternoon.”
Outside God’s Extended Hand, I speak with Dennis and Cassandra, a married couple who met on the streets. Dennis, originally from Iowa, served three tours of duty in Iraq before being discharged from the Marines at Camp Pendleton two years ago. He then got several sales jobs, which he lost before becoming homeless. Cassandra is a Navy veteran who went to work as a hospital nurse after her military service. But she quit, she says, after a doctor at the hospital repeatedly harassed her sexually.
Cassandra is now pregnant. “If she or any other pregnant woman out here takes her pants down in the bushes to go to the bathroom,” Ross tells me later, “she is vulnerable to psychopaths who might rape her or punch her just for the fun of it. If she tells the cops about any incidents, they’re likely to say, ‘Don’t take your pants down in the bushes.’ But where is she supposed to go to the bathroom?”
Meanwhile, the Water Man has taken another beating. Early last week, Ross says, he was handing out water bottles when he spotted a woman being kicked to the ground near 15th and C. “I yelled at the guy to stop,” says Ross, “so he came after me, hitting me on the side of the cheek bone and then running off. I got one good punch in, though. It was about nine o’clock, when these drug dealers start showing up down here. They’re like cockroaches, waiting until dark to come out.”
After a trip to the doctor, Ross learned his cheekbone had been pushed into his nose. Both were broken.