Op-ed: Get government off the backs of the homeless

Government cannot be allowed to tell the poor how to live or where to live. It cannot be allowed to tell the poor that they cannot use tents and tarps to shelter themselves when they have no other options that work for them.

I write this editorial today because I’m concerned about certain actions that city government in Berkeley is taking around the issue of homelessness and towards a protest camp called First They Came for the Homeless. I am a civil libertarian and I believe strongly in the American virtues of freedom and civil rights, and through this lens I have come to view Berkeley’s actions as un-American.

There are approximately 1,000 homeless people in Berkeley today and approximately 80% of them are unsheltered. The main issue here is that the city of Berkeley has established a set of homeless services that do not work. Chief among them is the city of Berkeley shelter system, which hundreds within our homeless population are voting against every night with their tents, tarps and sleeping bags.

In response to this, city officials, and councilmembers such as Kriss Worthington, have tried to use the carrot-and-stick approach to encourage the homeless to utilize the shelters. Unfortunately, this approach does not respect the freedom of individuals to make their own choices about how to deal with the challenges they currently face.

As of this time, many of the providers of homeless services refer to their clients as customers. If we take this logic all the way to its conclusion then we can only conclude that the homeless services providers do not serve their customers well, nor do they meet the needs of their customers. When you shop at a grocery store and they give you bad service, or they don’t meet your needs, you simply stop shopping there and go to another grocery store. But when it comes to homeless services we do not extend the homeless that same choice. Instead we tell them that they must go to the shelter, and that if they sleep outside their conduct is illegal. We tell them that they’re not allowed to use tents and tarps to protect themselves from the elements if they can’t, or won’t, go to a shelter.

This, my fellow Americans, is certainly unacceptable. We have created a homeless service system that, as mentioned earlier, does not serve its customers well.

So those customers then try to come up with their own ways to take care of themselves and take care of each other. They do this by setting up tent colonies to which the city of Berkeley responds by saying, no that’s illegal and sending in the police and using the threat of physical force to regulate it out of existence.

In America’s 250+ year history, millions of people have died on the battlefield to defend the freedom that we Americans cherish so much. Therefore to deny the homeless the freedom to take care of themselves as they see fit does not honor our commitment to individual liberty.

In light of these issues I believe the government needs to get off the backs of the homeless. Government cannot be allowed to tell the poor how to live or where to live. It cannot be allowed to tell the poor that they cannot use tents and tarps to shelter themselves when they have no other options that work for them. To do otherwise is to go down the frightening slippery slope towards a police state and, ultimately, a Stalinist America.

You may not like the fact that a homeless person chooses to live in a tent rather than go to a shelter. You may not like the fact that a group of homeless people from First They Came for the Homeless is camping in a median. You may feel that camping in a median or under an overpass is unsafe for the homeless themselves. And perhaps it may be.

But we must understand that the homeless are fully fledged adults who do not need to be protected from the hazards of camping in a median or under a bridge. And it is not the government’s job to tell some to stay at a shelter because they are homeless, and it is not the government’s job to regulate the conduct of survival camping to protect someone from any perceived dangers they might face by having their campsite on a traffic median.

If Berkeley is as progressive as it says it is, if Berkeley wants to honor such things as the free-speech movement and the civil-rights movement, then it must send a clear message to the rest of the country when it comes to homelessness: it must get government off the backs of the homeless and stop telling the poor that they can’t use tents, tarps or vehicles to shelter themselves from the elements as long as they are not committing a crime in doing so.

Cody R McGillivray, formerly homeless, is currently a student at Berkeley City College.