Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Peace Camp 2010 : My Reverie after a Night on Cement

by Linda Lemaster

This note is simply a place-holder message. I haven't been home enough to write anything myself worthy of sharing. I have been spending whatever time I could during the past week at PeaceCamp2010.

I have been involved with what I'm calling the Movement to End Homelessness in our Country, since Scott Creek struggles in the late 1970s; since before the word "homelessness" was indulged by news reporters and memorialized by Paul Simon in song. When I started paying attention to this stuff, in my then-hometown, City of Santa Cruz, people were still fretting about the overuse of the word "vagrant" and calling gatherings of displaced people UTEs, which stands for Unidentified Transient Elements. It was dehumanizing, said some. So they stopped using it in print. Then began "homeless" and homelessness".

For decades I've been a nag: "Don't use it as a noun," I'd lament. It is a descriptive, an adjective. It demeans people further when used as a subject or noun. Homeless PEOPLE. At least in the first entry in a story, whether to a bureaucrat or to a news person, I've pushed this one little concern, perhaps in vain. People who are clearly committed to humane values continue to say, The Homeless! I believe this cluelessness (by most folks who do it) is not intended to help dehumanize the displace folks, but it does so. It makes it much easier to get that "them or us" hostility going. It has been a tool to push folks into this caste-system-like status.

So I say again, for the gazillionth time it feels like, "HOMELESS" is an adjective. In the past year, many more people have become supportive of making 'homelessness' a status crime, in light of the pattern, nationwide, of random and vicious attacks against visibly homeless sleepers. Most of us can't do much about such a big and urgent social "problem." But we can retrain ourselves to use more appropriate words in our everyday speech, can't we?

I have continued to engage in work I feel/felt would lead to undoing homelessness as federal social policy. I have continued to check out the tent cities and encampments and those rare gatherings that would resist growing homelessness. I once put together a great (well reviewed) Civil Rights & Homeless People panel for a Housing California conference, and I helped to organize and execute a wonderfully uplifting and educational "Tent City Convention" which invited folks from all up and down the west coast, including Canada, to spend a long weekend together and share problems and solutions for organizers. Thanks to Thomas Leavitt and his family, we were able to put together a "safe place" (i.e. private property) for that gathering of about 50 folks.

I have continued, as my health has permitted, to be an active participant in our County's Continuum of Care and Homeless Action Partnership, a collaborative who's tasks include helping get state and federal funding for this growing population distributed optimally in Santa Cruz County.

As leader/facilitator for Housing NOW! in Santa Cruz, I have continued to provide organizational and technical support, as well as occasional respite support, to my friends and neighbors here. Recently, I had to dust off my hat as an "expert on homelessness" and again become a court witness for the persecuted and prosecuted homeless population. In short, I have learned there are a LOT of ways we can each and all face this growing "problem". I try to do whatever I can that makes sense and that could stem the tide of wasted American lives, even if only a little bit.

While I believed, years ago, that I'd be able to "do more" once my children were grown, it isn't really happening yet. I bring all this nonsense and knowledge to my involvement when I stand with protesters, demonstrators and individually stranded homeless folk. As a committed pacifist, sometimes, there's no match between demonstrators and what I can share. Sometimes there is.

With the emergence of Peace Camp 2010 (see blog -- same name -- for their contact info and more) I have been enjoying a supportive role in this experiment of "being allowed to be": to be visible, to find each other, to sleep in less fear, and much more. I believe isolation is a killer and a crazy-maker, and homeless people keep becoming isolated, and often die totally alone.

The gatherings of homeless people also gives compassionate folks in our communities the opportunity to make offerings as well; very important engagement. For me, this is so very important.

I have fallen in 'deep like' with many of the "regulars" in Peace Camp! Checking in, for the past month, sleeping in borrowed van nearby, some nites; doing what I can. Sometimes a little tube of 'triple antibiotic ointment', chewable Vitamin C, or a ride to a clinic makes a person's day. Sometimes just a cup of hot tea.

While I have very little (in typical terms), it is so much more than I had when I was homeless with my kids!

I believe this work is my calling, or maybe the reason I was born. It requires me to be of support and to be friendly to "the unfortunate." The Spiritual tradition which I follow requires me to help people who are less fortunate than I am, and I've been very lucky to learn how "easy" this can be when one is willing to be flexible and awake.

Well, the other nite I quite literally fell asleep on the job.

The first night I slept outside with Peace Camp 2010 folks, I got a ticket for "lodging". Bet it will turn out to be an expensive decision/nite. But I was very deeply concerned about just then was one of the men there, who was quite ill, and I felt I needed to keep an eye on his welfare. (It was obviously the most important thing just then, for me.)

Earlier, I had offered "ride to hospital?" but he explained how that would likely create just TWO DAY'S of help, and then set up a greater health emergency, unless there was money for the hospital's release directions. My own hospital experiences match his assessment. And there is NOT real health care access for most homeless people. And I couldn't think of any other way to safeguard this man's physical health, so I slept on the cement with about ten folk who had no other options, alongside one housed girlfriend sharing such concerns, too.

Homelessness kills, and I'm just too tired of knowing some of it's absolute victims.

Linda Lemaster is a long-time Santa Cruz resident and activist. She served as chair of the City's official Homeless Issues Task Force, founded the Welfare Mothers Support Group, and has been deeply involved in the struggle for homeless rights and services throughout her life.


  1. Thank you, Peace Camp 2010, for the honor of posting this! There are two typos: see my blog, Linda's Hearth (hearthbylinda.blogspot.com)if yr interested in that one barely whacky sentence typo.

    2nd typo is in bio note at the bottom:
    I did not found the initial Welfare Mother's Support Group, but you could fairly say that I reprised it, and that I was a founder (among 5) of Wefare Parents Support Group, Inc. For anyone interested: Welfare Mother's Support Group began four years before I become active as a mother depending on aid, and it was housed at Welfare and Education Legal Assistance Center, a CAB, Inc. program. WMSG was about bringing women together as self-defining USA)self-help sessions.

    Initially, WMSG did some very helpful and significant advocacy work around getting Food Stamps publicized and untangled for this County, because so many were hungry here. It came back to life after several dormant years when three of us, support group participants, got "politicized" in response to an incident by County Board of Supervisor Marilyn Liddicoat, who criminally overstepped both her job and the head of "welfare" to snoop for dirt to use against Gary Patton and one of his aides. Fortunately for everyone except those whose personal lives were violated, her crime backfired.

    I was one of three "welfare mothers" who carried a message, including the W&I code's wording, to the formal Board of Suspervisors, after that incident. As far as I know, this political figure suffered no penalty besides getting exposed, and later was appointed by the state Governor into deciding which students would get college loans in the UC system.

    After that, the WMSG grew and grew and became a County-wide, accessible, self-help and mutual-helping organization, in effect blazing a path for (or at least creating a viable and versatile model for)) making personal change even when overextended or stressed, in our fast-changing social and bureaucratically run world. We had many successes, including teams of women with very divergent beliefs working together on projects; and inlcuding a viable town-n-gown dynamic.

    This, like so much of women's history through the '70s and '80s (and ever?), is virtually hidden. A single reference in the Sentinel to the first WMSG women, who included Pat Grey, and a ref in the Pajaronian of that moment before the Bd of Supes.

  2. Please pack up your trash and leave! Thanks so much!


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