by Keith McHenry, author of Hungry for Peace and primary author of The Anarchist Cookbook
Even though I have shared meals with the hungry for over 36 years, I find it shocking that today, in 2017, so many people are coming to eat with Food Not Bombs.
The National Center on Family Homelessness reports there are “2.5 million children in America that are homeless each year.” A society that lets millions of children live on it’s streets is a society that is collapsing.
To address this crisis we need to change our local and national priorities. That is why Food Not Bombs shares its meals outside: to encourage public dialogue about redirecting taxes from the military to providing real security for our people in the form of housing, education, and desperately needed services.
But instead of a humane, sensible response to homelessness, the Santa Cruz City Council has turned instead to making it illegal to be homeless via its law against sleeping outdoors. To make matters worse, a year-and-a-half ago, the City Council closed down the only homeless shelter in our city.
Anti-homeless architecture is also common in Santa Cruz. This includes installation of high frequency sound “Mosquito Boxes” in parks (activated after closing hours), removing planter boxes and free speech zones on Pacific Avenue, replacing the City Hall lawn with gravel and rocks, and now the ugly chain link fencing at the historic downtown post office.
These policies contribute to the death of homeless people, including 53-year-old Micheal Mears who died of hypothermia on February 17, 2017. Medical staff told his sister Jenny that his body temperature was 70 degrees when he was found on Potrero Street.
To justify laws against sharing meals outside, advocates of repression cite a theory claiming that “street feeding” keeps people homeless.
One of those seeking to drive the homeless and groups that share food outside out-of-sight is Janet Fardette. In her 2009 Sentinel letter, “Time to take back downtown Santa Cruz,” Ms. Fardette writes, “Our city no longer belongs to us. It has been taken over by drug addicts, homeless, panhandlers and the like.”
I can understand that it must be frustrating for property owners to see an increasing number of people living outside. They worked hard to obtain their homes and businesses, and the growing number of people living outside must be disheartening, and does nothing to improve the value of their property. Still, does it really do any good to hide hunger and homelessness? Will that make these problems go away? Wouldn’t it be better to help suffering people than to persecute them.
The campaign to stop Food Not Bombs’ free meals includes an online petition, and phoning and e-mailing local officials. Ms. Fardette suggests in a February 13, 2017 e-mail that officials look into “Robert Marbut’s widely successful” theory — mentioned on the NPR report, “More Cities Are Making It Illegal To Hand Out Food To The Homeless” — that “Street feeding is one of the worst things to do, because it keeps people in homeless status. I think it’s very unproductive, very enabling, and it keeps people out of recovery programs.”
Marbut’s “solution” focuses on “correcting” the behavior of those living on the streets, treating people as though they were naughty children. Marbut doesn’t even consider a failing economic system, gross disparities in wealth and income, and the obscene price of housing in neither his analysis nor his “solution.” In short, he posits that it’s the homeless person’s behavior that keeps him or her from paying for housing.
Blaming the victim isn’t working. Hundreds, probably thousands, of people still live outside in the cities that have adopted Marbut’s program and many in those cities still rely on Food Not Bombs and other groups that provide free meals.
Those who would like the homeless to disappear from Santa Cruz are lobbying to adopt Marbut’s “solution” and drive Food Not Bombs from public view. In short, they want to adopt Marbut’s “stick” but in all likelihood not adopt his inadequate “carrot.” The $5,300 a month that might be spent on Marbut’s consulting fee could be much better spent on maintaining 24-hour bathrooms.
Food Not Bombs is not a charity. We share vegan meals in visible locations with signs and literature promoting change in society, change that will mean that no one is forced to live on the streets or to depend on soup kitchens.
We can end homelessness if we divert even a small fraction of the billions wasted on armaments, and insted use it to provide real national security in the form of affordable housing, jobs for anyone who wants one, and access to quality education and healthcare for all. A living wage (a net boon to the economy) would also make it far easier for people to get off the streets. Blaming the homeless for their condition is clearly not working.
Keith McHenry is a co-founder of the Food Not Bombs movement.