In Absence of State Action, Organizers Help Homeless People During Pandemic

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, collectives sharing free food with the hungry were facing a sharp uptick in state repression.

In Arizona, Tucson Police Park Safety warned the public that sharing food in public parks is illegal in a statement posted to Twitter on February 7. In response, the People’s Defense Initiative in Tucson started a petition and organized a rally at the City Hall on February 19 to “remind Tucson leadership that feeding the hungry is never a crime!”

Free Hot Soup, a group that serves food to over a hundred people in a Portland, Oregon, park five nights a week, sued the city in November 2019 after it introduced a new “social service” law. The law creates new bureaucratic hurdles for solidarity services including food handling permits, insurance coverage, dumpsters, security, and restricts the services to once per week per park.

In Santa Cruz, California, one person was arrested for distributing water to the university graduate student strikers on February 10.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Georgia, landlords and authorities worked together to halt the distribution of food.

Food Not Bombs Atlanta (FNB), a collective that gives out free vegetarian and vegan food, set up shop at Park 35 apartments in Decatur, Georgia, in September 2019. At first, the management of the lower-income apartment complex welcomed them onto their property. The residents, one of whom is involved with the FNB chapter, said the food sharing made their lives a bit easier.

“It is great, it is great. It sure does help my family out. Very important, ya know,” one resident said of the program in a video. “I think a lot of people — especially in this complex — really do need a little help.”

Community members with Food4Life prepare boxes of groceries to deliver in March 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Community members with Food4Life prepare boxes of groceries to deliver in March 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia.

But when Park 35 management received information about FNB’s resource pamphlet table, which included a flyer about forming a tenant’s union, their tone toward the collective changed. Park 35, owned by multibillionaire and Trump supporter Stephen Ross, apparently feared that its tenants may start organizing together against reported holes in the floors, forcible evictions and the impossibility of reaching management to request repairs.

On October 29, 2019, management first informed FNB that they must stop sharing food on the premises. At first, the collective refused.

Two weeks later, management called the police. The police arrested one member for “trespassing” and “obstruction of an officer.” After several more weeks of police harassment — which was scaring off residents — FNB decided to deescalate by moving the food service off the complex and onto the sidewalk. But this location, next to a busy highway and a far walk away from some homes, was not ideal.

“A lot of the people that we give food to don’t have cars, some have limited mobility … a lot of people don’t realize we are there. A lot of people can’t make the trek or can’t carry a lot of groceries,” Marlon Kautz, a member of the collective, told Truthout. “We’re trying to compensate for that by helping people move boxes and delivering, but it’s definitely reduced the amount of stuff that we can distribute.”

But relocating off-site didn’t fix the police problem. “Even still — at least two times now — we have had authorities come and try to stop us from handing out groceries,” Kautz said.

In most cases, Kautz says, charity groups like churches would likely have ended the food sharing program if directed to by police. But FNB is not dissuaded from its mission. “We have a strong ideological commitment that says we don’t care what the law says, we are going to do what we think is right. And we can see where that gets us — that gets us in jail,” he said.

A Collision of Crises

Because of their persistent organizing spanning over two decades, FNB Atlanta was able to resourcefully and rapidly respond to community needs during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. They launched the “Food4Life” initiative to coordinate delivery of free groceries city-wide, using a strict sanitation protocol. According to the collective, almost 1,000 families have signed up to receive groceries, and volunteers have already distributed over three tons of goods.

So far, police have left them alone. “We always worry about police interference, because they’ve shown so consistently that they’re more interested in maintaining control than helping people,” Kautz told Truthout via email. “But it hasn’t inhibited our effectiveness in this moment.” They figure, “If anything, people more readily support our efforts because we’ve shown that we will do what’s right even if the cops get in our way.”

Mutual aid efforts — acts of banding together to address each other’s survival needs with a recognition that systems in place are inadequate — are ramping up across the world. Established groups have been able to rapidly mobilize, while new groups are able to find inspiration and learn from established groups. Anarchist Black Cross and Antifascist Action in Nashville, Tennessee, mobilized to distribute homemade hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies to homeless encampments. People’s Breakfast Oakland served 150 meals to the houseless community in Oakland, California, while wearing gloves and N95 masks. Santa Cruz FNB and the Santa Cruz Homeless Union established an around-the-clock survival support station, which organizers call the COVID-19 Relief Center, while nonprofits have shut down. Before police delivered a cease and desist notice on March 24, the Relief Center provided hot meals, water, hand sanitizer and other survival gear to the county’s large homeless population.

Thousands of groups are showing similar acts of solidarity across the country.

The state’s response, however, has been unarguably slow, and even destructive. Authorities in Orange County, California, are attempting to move houseless people from National Guard armories to crowded indoor warehouse-style facilities. At one such facility in an empty Salvation Army building, stretcher-style beds are kept six feet apart. But, considering at least one study shows that the virus can linger in the air for several hours, this system may prove to be incredibly infectious.

Authorities in Orange County also announced that a closed youth prison will be opened to hold elderly and immunocompromised people without homes, while those who are symptomatic may reportedly be moved into motels or trailers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released interim guidance prevention measures, specifying that homeless encampments aren’t to be cleared unless housing units are available. “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” according to the guidelines. Regardless, on March 20 and March 23, police evicted encampments in Santa Cruz.

In San Francisco, street counselors are reportedly advising people who are homeless to camp six feet apart from each other. In response, Bobby Price, a man without a home, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “If I do that, people will steal my stuff…. So, I’m in danger of that virus by being so close to people. What they really need to do is help us with safe places inside — not some super-crowded shelter. I’m scared, and things are getting very tense out here in the streets.”

Eve Garrow, a homeless policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, expressed a similar logic: “People need safe housing that allows them to self-isolate — not homeless shelters with high exposure to risk,” he told the Orange County Register. “Orange County officials should immediately pivot to a ‘housing first’ approach by providing people with affordable, permanent housing.” The “housing first” principle centers the idea that a home is the best secure foundation for life improvements, and its use is successfully tackling homelessness in Helsinki, Finland. Whenever the strategy is funded in the United States, it’s been similarly successful.

In New York City, there is at least one report of a doctor discharging a homeless patient with symptoms back to a shelter in Manhattan, even though his test came back positive for COVID-19. Others at the shelter were reportedly scared they would lose their bed if they got tested.

Shelter residents in the Bronx and Brooklyn have reached out to WABC expressing concerns about their health and well-being. “They are not sanitizing our rooms, but they are making sure the staff are safe,” one woman from a shelter in Manhattan wrote to the outlet. “They [the staff] have gloves and masks. They don’t give us none of that. They said it’s only for staff,” another man wrote. Another man at a shelter in Brooklyn told WABC that the shelter was “not following any of the rules,” and said it was “very, very dangerous here.” A woman at the shelter described the conditions as “dangerous and unsanitary.” One man wrote, “We are people too.”

Several homeless people have died, and there are speculations COVID-19 deaths, in general, are vastly underreported across the country.

Decades of Prioritizing Criminalization Over Public Health

In some ways, the government’s response to the pandemic — warehousing people in close quarters — appears to mirror its trajectory prior to the crisis.

Cuts to social services, tax breaks for the wealthy, and increased cost of living since the 1980s in the United States have resulted in extremely high rates of homelessness, debt and state repression. Department of Housing and Urban Development statistics report over half a million people were homeless in the United States in 2019. (Many experts claim the count is underestimated and should be doubled.)

To address the homelessness crisis, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the surveying of vacant federal buildings, fairgrounds and decommissioned hospitals to centralize — or warehouse — the state’s massive homeless population.

This warehousing technique was popularized by Robert Marbut, the Trump administration’s new executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Marbut has made a fortune consulting for counties in California, Florida, and elsewhere on homelessness issues. He promotes a punitive model based on criminalization and criticizes those who show solidarity with the homeless as enablers. In Pinellas County, Florida, Marbut worked with law enforcement to warehouse homeless people in camps where they had to earn “the privilege” of bunk beds. If people break rules, they are moved outdoors for up to 15 days. The national nonprofit Invisible People describes Marbut’s past work as “real-life horror.”

Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry described an uptick in the outlawing of food sharing around the time Marbut was sworn in. “I am very, very worried — and I think many people on the ground working with homeless people are worried — that there will be a very severe clampdown against feeding people because it would interfere with the city’s ability to actually get everyone off the street and put them in facilities,” McHenry said prior to the pandemic.

The pandemic, however, may be accelerating this plan in Santa Cruz, where McHenry resides. Police are not allowing food distribution on the streets, and are attempting to usher people into close quarters at the Veterans Memorial Building.

Repression against FNB, however, isn’t new. Instead of providing adequate relief for homeless people, throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the California government spent huge sums on surveilling and prosecuting FNB volunteers. Between 1988 and 1996, police arrested or cited over 1,000 Food Not Bombs volunteers in San Francisco alone, some receiving felony charges. According to McHenry, volunteers were also framed for various terrorism charges. For McHenry’s part, he was arrested 90 times related to food sharing between 1988 and 1994, has spent a total of 500 days in San Francisco jails and faced charges that amounted to life in prison. Amnesty International wrote to the mayor’s office in October 1994 with concerns that the city’s repression against FNB may be a violation of international law. Food Not Bombs attributes McHenry’s ultimate freedom, in part, to Amnesty International’s intervention.

Roving teams of San Francisco police would disrupt FNB chapters’ food share and start beating volunteers, according to McHenry. And their groups were heavily infiltrated by undercover agents. “When a lot of your friends turn out to be FBI agents … it’s really a bummer,” McHenry chuckled. “I’ve had FBI agents join our group and we just make them work really hard in composting or something like that.”

Regardless of the potential risks, Food Not Bombs will continue to share food — not just for hungry people, they say — but for the future of society.

“As the gap between the rich and the poor gets wider and as climate instability causes more and more people to become homeless, this is really a survival program for all of us,” Kautz said. “In doing it, we are trying to promote that the way all of us can solve our problems is by helping each other, even when the authorities and the elites want to stop that.”