I'm going to go back to February of this year,which was before the election. And I'm going to tell you a story. I was advised by a member of the previous administration, and was, that if I voted, if I did not vote for the, the banning of (panhandling on) arterial roads, that I probably wouldn't be back here in March. I took it very seriously. And it went from first reading to second reading. At second reading, I stood here, I sat here, my knees were shaking. I listened and listened and listened. And I wanted to be able to hear what I needed to hear to bring that vote forward. But what I heard was people losing their jobs. And so I had to come to conclusion. And my conclusion was this. That if a job was to be lost, it would be mine, not theirs. And I did not vote for it. Not only did I not vote for it, it changed the vote on Council. I am here today.
-Councilwoman Capin, voted this week to ban panhandling
Our city council, under immense pressure to pass an ordinance to get the poor off our city streets, has been discussing a panhandling ban for over a year now. It is a problematic law that has been difficult to write in a way that could be defended as constitutional. Council has gone back and forth with ideas and compromises. The first idea was a full ban, then a compromise of a ban on arterial roads was proposed and voted down by the previous council, who clearly favored a full ban. Then there was the proposal of a five day ban that would allow street solicitation on the weekends but this was not supported because it could not be demonstrated that weekends were safer that weekdays to stand on the corners. It has not been easy task to single out and legislate against the homeless since as Councilman Cohen stated “We are operating within murky constitutional parameters.” After a year of legal gymnastics, they finally passed an ordinance that remotely approaches constitutionality. Really its more about avoiding a lawsuit. Councilwoman Mulhurn, the only voice of conscience on council, stated “We have to realize that there is no public safety need for this. And then, let's move on to what our legal department's been telling us about how we can make all these exceptions. What if we make no exceptions and we just don't do it? Then we don't have to defend a law. But the reality is, who is going to sue the city? It's not going to be homeless people. It's not going to be people selling flowers and water on the street. They can't afford to sue us. So who could possibly sue us? The unions or the Tribune. So we're making these decision...based on who can afford to sue us, and that is very sad.”
I believe they have failed in their effort to pass a constitutional law but more importantly council has failed terribly in leadership and morality, effectively stripping poor people of their right and ability to ask for help when work fails them. In step with the trend in this nation, Tampa has furthered the criminalization of poverty. Mulhern, the only one to vote against this ban, said “I am able to vote symbolically against this, because I do believe... we cannot criminalize poverty. And this is a first step in doing that. And in the bad tenor we have right now, the way people are treating the least among us, I cannot support it.”
The least among us have taken center stage in many ways as our city’s police have been spending their time harassing the homeless, because there is nowhere that they are allowed to be, and stopping organizations from feeding the hungry in public. Our people in ministry among the poor are being pulled over or approached by police and being told it is illegal to share food with the homeless. When we push back and ask what ordinance they are enforcing we have yet to get a straight answer. Now we are legislating against poor people making their poverty known publicly by holding a sign on the street corner. The cumulative effect of these actions amounts to an act of violence against our most vulnerable neighbors. I really appreciate the words of my friend and brother Bishop Chuck Leigh, who is the Bishop of the Apostolic Catholic Church and President of the Florida Council of Churches. He said during public comment, “I would tell you very clearly that panhandling, begging, is a right of human beings expressed both in scripture and in the tradition of the early church. From my point of view -- and I think from the point of view of the people that I lead -- this is an immoral action. Having it even in front of council, I think the whole question of the integrity of the council is in question. It's an immoral act to vote for it, for the police, it's an immoral act to enforce it, and I think for the rest of us, it's an immoral act to let it happen. And I do promise you -- I promise you that if it passes,it's the job of the Christian church to stand with those who are being persecuted of the and it clearly is a criminalization of poverty. If you pass it, I will be begging on the streets, and I will urge the people that follow me to do the same. Because we have got to stand with people that are being really persecuted like this. This act has nothing to do with safety.... It has to do with how the corporate and political interests view your control of the city. And the real question is, were you elected to help the people or to help the corporations? There's nothing more I can say other than clearly it is an immoral act. I want to be clear on that. I want you to understand that at least a good number of the Christians in this city believe that. And we will not in any way cooperate with this law if do you pass it.” As Christians, as people of conscience, as good neighbors we must not comply with the immoral and unethical disregard and hostility that our city officials show toward poor people.
I have sat in these city council meeting and watched council listen to droves of desperate citizens and wrestle with this decision. I honestly do not know how they have been able to listen to homeless folks as well as priests tell them that they must not pass this law and know that all of their supporters/constituents are leaning on them more each moment with pressure to pass it. They have discussed what was permissible under the constitution and almost begged lawyers to make a way to pass this as they spent an entire year listening to public comment that reminded them that they are on the wrong side of justice. In the end the best they have is the word of City Attorney James Shimberg who said “we think we can defend” this law.
Below are a few such comments from the public:
“I work out there to keep my family together.
This pays my rent, buys my food, keeps our clothes clean.
Nobody is offering us jobs.
There is no work out here.”
“This is an immoral action.”
“Go beyond hoping your laws are constitutional and be leaders.
Do justice. Do what is moral and right here”
“I sell flower for a living. People are glad to see me and they say thank you”
I cannot imagine the pressure they felt and I cannot imagine how many nights they must have lay awake hearing the words of the poor in their heads. As Councilman Cohen stated “This has been an agonizing debate and there is not a person that sits on this board, I assure you, that has not lost sleep over...this issue.”
Meanwhile this same council and the same society that demands such inhumane laws are trying to address ‘the homeless problem’ by devising a ‘one-stop shop’ for our homeless friends.They envision a place in town where there are beds, lockers, meals, services, medical care and everything someone on the street might need. Beautiful right? (By the way St. Petersburg has already renovated an annex of the prison for this very purpose and open what they are calling “Safe Harbor”) Iit is a beautiful idea until you realize that this idea is being developed in partnership with the sheriffs dept. to use as an ‘arrest diversion program’ as they pick up poor people. Since there is nowhere legal to be, the police will be arresting more and more of our homeless neighbors. This one stop shop will be an option instead of jail, a place where it is legal for them to be. What disturbs me is the lack of an option that they actually have. It’s illegal for you to be anywhere, so you are under arrest and now you have a choice, Jail or this renovated jail building that that you can checkout of during the day? St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has said the city will eventually begin arresting homeless people who sleep in parks or on public rights of way, with Safe Harbor an eventual destination for them. I cannot think of any time in history where a single population of people being concentrated into a single location away from the rest of society has been anything but oppressive and evil. When we begin registering and focusing martial attention on a certain demographic I warn you that terrible things are around the corner.
|An Image from the Safe Harbor Website.|
So as I sit in the city council and hear them vote 6-1 to pass this ungodly, unethical, and inhumane ordinance I can’t help but wonder if the Occupy Tampa folks across the street have any idea what just happened in here. I walked out with my head hung low and saw the crowds directly across the street and just felt sad. They are crying out against the corporate control of our nation and I just watched the city news papers basically give their permission to the council inside. Gary Steele, Copy Manager for the Tampa Tribune said “The Tampa Tribune can support the two ordinances, the six-day ban coupled with the newspaper exemption.” and Mr. Cheney from the St. Pete Times said “The six-day ban is fair for everybody...we do support what you all are trying to do.” The Protesters across the street are shaking their fists in disgust and I can’t help but personally feel the weight of all of our guilt. We support the very corporations that we are calling evil, we eat food whose very production is destroying our earth and enslaving workers. We buy and wear clothes that are made affordable by sweatshop production and we don’t occupy city council when they are attacking the poor. We are filled with a righteous indignation, and indeed we should be, at the corporate execs and the brokers on wall street but I fear that we draw the line between good and evil between us and them without acknowledging that line between good and evil runs through the middle of each of us. Maybe we don’t realize that our privilege and sense of entitlement is the same evil that enslaves and robs nations. We miss the fact that our own lust and porn addictions are the same evil that traffic women and children around our world in the global sexual slaver industry. The United Nations estimates that up to 4 million women and children are trafficked every year. My heart breaks as I think about the poorest among us and how they are the ones who bear the greatest burden - legislation, landfill communities, displacement, ecological destruction via systems of greed, corruption, and oppression. As we occupy our cities and make demands for empowerment of the people we will need to listen to each other and educate each other across racial, political, sexual, and economic divides. We also need to be able to confess the ways that we are complicit in the evil that we are standing against. We must personally turn around and acknowledge that we have been selfish, racist, sexist, materialistic, greedy, shallow consumers. No revolution will ever be complete unless it takes place systemically as well as within the hearts of individuals. This is an awakening that must take place within each of us as well as throughout our nation. We cannot neglect the poor as we do today and expect our voices to be heard.
Our need to confess, embrace humility and stand in solidarity with our weakest members is crucial. Our hunger for justice is common ground and our need to confess and acknowledge our own guilt and personal responsibility is common ground as well. We as a movement have an opportunity to model the changes that we want to see in our nations leaders. We can, as Ghandi said, “Be the change that we want to see in the world.”
I hope that the Bishop was correct and that many would choose not to cooperate with the laws our city is passing, I pray that all of us would stand in solidarity with the poorest among us, I long to see a community where the voiceless lead the way, and all of us acknowledge the darkness and selfishness within ourselves and that our revolution would be internal and spiritual as much as it is systemic and global.
I am reminded of the prayer of Jesus “May your Kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Deliver us all from the evil that oppresses, enslaves, and consumes human beings and deliver us from the ways that same evil is present in our own hearts.