By Rune Girshfeld
The police have been sounding out the possibilities for “sweeping” the streets since last October. October 21, 2009 was the first instance in which I personally heard usage of that inhumane and notorious metaphor to refer to removing the vehicularly homed and sidewalk sleepers from the streets in Venice. Two policewomen came banging upon my door, shining blinding lights upon my face, before beginning the foundation of a soon to be elaborate refrain. This basic refrain was that the street would very soon be “cleaned” or “swept,” because there had been complaints. They had been informed (by residents, the chief, Councilman Rosendahl, the city, or some presumably authoritative someone) that “this street” is a problem and that the police have been told to soon (at 4 a.m., next week, just plain soon) “sweep” the street. If it is a vehicle, it will be towed (though, presumably, not the cars of Digital Domain employees or Gold’s Gym clients). They always assure me (forcefully) that I could be arrested, ticketed, right now for illegally living in a vehicle (85.02 LAMC), but that has yet to happen. They say that they are constantly marking tires on my street in anticipation of 72-hour parking violations.
While the particulars of the refrain are disturbing enough on paper, the threatening and intimidating delivery of this message is truly inhumane.
Bright lights and loud banging service for a “hello.” I have often had to request numerous times before the police have identified themselves as such. The first words are usually a yelled, “come out!” The yelling and banging quickly escalates in volume and force. Within 10 seconds they are introducing an intention to break down the door. While you would think that they could only do such a thing if they have a reasonable suspicion of a crime occurring, this is the opening tone in my police interactions. They show up in pairs, or a gang of pairs. They fire rapid questions about who is inside, what is inside, what is being hidden. In support of the questions, they assure me that they know that I am hiding someone or something. My driver’s license is sent to be checked against my criminal record. They say, again and again, that I am a problem, that I have to leave, that I am here illegally, that they know that I am here illegally.
Despite the specifics of who has sent them, the point is hammered home that I am unwanted, that everyone in power has decided that I will be gone. I, of course, am never someone with power or say.
They let me know, always, that they have the power to arrest, ticket, tow me. They question what I do all day, what I am doing now. They ask for my address, and, not having one, accuse and question rapidly in hopes (I imagine) that I admit that I am criminally living in a vehicle. They allude to the time I must spend at the beach. They ask whether I have a job by stating that I don’t or giving an example of what I must do all day with my “friends” on the street. They surround me like a gang. They speak sarcastically (“why don’t you park at your job?”). They laugh when I desperately repeat questions (“who ordered you to sweep?” “what does ‘sweep’ mean?” “who was at that meeting with Rosendahl?”) that they choose not to answer. They notice and laugh when they see my hands shaking as I try to write down their names that they give me with a sneer.
This happened most recently to me on January 7. When I asked who was knocking on my door, the answer was “your best friend.” There were four police surrounding me. They stated that I had been parked over 72 hours. I knew this was a lie, but I was frightened by just how insistently they kept to this fiction. I wondered whether they were hoping to tow me then and there or whether it was sufficiently useful for them to suggest they had power beyond the facts of the situation, and that they could create the story themselves.
They asked me whether I knew that I was breaking the law, and laughed when I asked them to cite the law. Only one of them knew offhand the specific number and letter of the law. They said that they were just coming from a town hall-style meeting with Bill Rosendahl in which the residents of Venice expressed that they wanted the streets to be cleaned (of the homeless). The residents were very angry. The residents don’t want these vehicles here. They had been ordered to clean them (me) out. They said that they just worked their way west from Lincoln. They talked to me in this way for half an hour. I don’t know why they left. I suppose that I seemed sufficiently afraid, that I would probably move. Perhaps they gave up on trying to find a pretense to ticket, tow, or arrest me, as I have no criminal record. My van is legal to park. So, they did finally leave, but not without reminding me that next time they would be ticketing, towing, and arresting, that the street would be swept, in the end.
It is with terrible difficulty that I try to remember the details of that evening. My hands tremble as I write. When I related this story to the few people of confidence that I have, the trembling returned, flowering forth from the roots of a particularly terrifying experience that has followed years of intimidation and the stress of being a closet homeless. I have slept poorly, awakening when I hear an engine idling ominously near. No one has been quite able to assure me that the law against living in a vehicle is not viable, though I can’t imagine it viable to persecute people for whom living in a vehicle is a much more favorable option to living on the street. Still I have so much to lose.
I have a reason for my fear, something more precious than my self to lose. I have a child. My van is the only home that my child has known. There are toys, books, clothes, photos. My child was angry enough when the bed was switched from longways to shortways in the rectangular room of space available to us. How would my child feel if our home was towed away, perhaps right in front of us? How would my child feel to be treated, or see Mama treated the way that I was most recently? Luckily my child has managed to miss or be asleep during so many incidents of police or “residents” yelling at us from outside our home, leaving threatening notes, calling us “homeless,” an identity that no child should have to shoulder.
My child has a home, a family. We have neighbors who live in similar homes. Between us we have a remarkably generous and empathetic community on our street. When we have had car trouble, they have helped us push-start it, or fix it with $5 and ingenuity. When we forgot to lock our door, they assured us that it had been safe all day. My child goes to school. I work full-time as a teacher and mother full-time. At our school, Venice “resident” children play with my child, sans economic apartheid. My child dances to show tunes, writes first-person fictions in home-made books, sings almost constantly out of happiness. There is no lived part of my child’s life where that name, “homeless,” is used or useful, only potentially hurtful and traumatic.
I am not ashamed of living in a van, even as a mother. My child is well cared for. I tire my physical body daily in the good tasks that nurture human life. I do not accept that I am a criminal when I sleep, wearied and well-worn for all that I have breathed and moved. When I sleep, my body may just as well sink into that earth below us, joined underneath for all of our streets and property lines. It is in that place where the deep waters flow that nourish my seeded and rising to flourish soul. I have the grace of any human to forget the angles of myself, whereupon they may be. I have a right to dissemble in the night. I have a right to drift in that sleepy ocean that belongs to no one. I am not ashamed for sleeping, for having a home, for attempting to give safely these blessings to my child.
I am ashamed of any one who has so compromised their humanity that they could deny me, and my child, this very thing which we all need. I am ashamed of policemen who allow themselves to be used to persecute people who often suffer from the same misfortunes and vices available to any human being. I am ashamed of police who give blatantly bogus tickets, promise to arrest, ticket, or tow even when there is no legal basis for doing so. I am ashamed of a police force which acts without honor, without factuality, without any sense of personal humanity. I am ashamed of Bill Rosendahl, who would, at best, be so simple as to be ignorant of the actions that follow from secretive “town hall” meetings, so simple as to be ignorant of how his own name is used to terrify people who have no representation, no voice, in the political arena.
I am ashamed of the residents who can live so long next to criminally-poor people and yet still be able to say it is an issue of parking, sanitation, security. Don’t they know that among the unlanded people around them are some who are taking care of their children, preparing their food? Do they know how their name is used? Do those legitimate and verified “residents” know that the homeless preemptively ghettoize themselves onto streets like 7th, 4th, 3rd, Rose, etc. because they’re afraid of the abuse that is coming from these residents? I am ashamed that, out of all of the important identities a person may have (mother, teacher, artist, Venetian, consumer, tax-payer, human being) the outwardly imposed identity of “homeless” trumps them all.
I fought so long, adamant that I would not let this “homelessness” be a knot that would twist upon the fabric of my life. I’ve been afraid, terrified, traumatized by my experiences with authority and angry “residents.” I still tremble, but, I feel, somewhere in the vibrancy of this trembling, is arising a rhythm, making time with that primal beating of my heart. My fear, my trembling, grows firm when mixed with the rage of one who can retreat no further. I am a mother. I can be pushed quite far, but a child is a sacred being. I warn us all to examine carefully the direction in which all of this is going, the nature of the beast before us, and the dark underbelly of this overly factionalized social war. I won’t stay silent. I won’t submit. I will stop cowering, and when I open myself with all of my heart and integrity to what is before me, I have great hope for what may come. This intimidation by the police, the residents, is forging something strong, potent, in me, and I’m readying myself for what may come. I don’t think that I’m the only one. I know that I am not the only one.
P.S. The streets have been looking sparser over the following weeks. I was unable to witness and document reported towings, as I am often away. People have been for all purposes disappeared by the removal of their homes. On Jan. 21, I observed a van towed under supervision of Officer Skinner and her partner. Later Skinner “favored” a parolee with the information that the street would be swept at 4 o’clock. I did not witness any sweeping happening although someone told me that some homeless were kicked off of the sidewalk, but I am not sure. The next day, I heard that Skinner and partner targeted one section of my street to intimidate, again giving 4 o’clock as the time of the sweeping. One gentleman on the street related that also, on this day, he was told to leave or Skinner (and partner) would return with a truck and throw his things in the garbage.