Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, February 13, 2005
by Susan Ives

“I was hungry and you handcuffed me. I was thirsty and you fined me $500. I was a stranger and you threw me in jail.”

City Councilwoman Patti Radle paraphrased Jesus last weekend in a speech to 350 peacemakers gathered in the Arneson River Theater to kick off the Season for Nonviolence.

Six months ago a group of San Antonio activists, mostly church people, got together to revitalize the Season for Nonviolence, a national movement that started in 1998 to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on Jan. 30, 1948, and the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.

They consulted Arun Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson and one of the founders of the movement, for recommendations on how to make the 64-day period a success. The best Seasons, he observed, have been those that concentrated on a local issue and did something about it.

Following his counsel, the organizers decided to raise money for homeless people in San Antonio. They had no way of knowing that just 36 hours before their march and rally, the City Council would pass a series of ordinances that criminalized homelessness. Or at least that’s the way it looked to most of the marchers.

Four laws were passed. Aggressive panhandling and urinating or defecating in public are now banned. People can no longer camp in public without a permit, which includes sleeping in vehicles.

Sitting or lying down in right of ways in public places is now illegal, but only in the city’s central business district. Violations would be Class C misdemeanors, with fines up to $500.
I was a stranger, and you fined me $500.

Don’t get me wrong. If someone was urinating on the sidewalk in front of my house I’d be upset, too. But I sympathize with Radle when she told the crowd at the Arneson that what upset her most was that her council colleagues showed so little remorse, so little compassion.

The vote come just a week after the council adopted a 10-year, $52.3 million plan to alleviate homelessness and hunger, which includes access to more public restrooms and adding shelter beds.

In a recent survey, 28 percent of San Antonio’s homeless people said they had been turned away from a shelter in the past year. If they don’t have a home, can’t get a bed in a shelter and will get arrested if they are caught sleeping in public, what are they supposed to do? Disappear?

If there aren’t any public restrooms open downtown after 11:30 p.m., what are homeless people to do? Hold it in? Try that on your 3-year-old.

Radle thinks we could have waited until the new plan was implemented before passing these laws, and I agree. The timing was abominable.

District 1 Councilman Roger Perez claims these laws don’t target the homeless; they target behaviors and will be applied to everyone equally.

How disingenuous. French writer Anatole France had this attitude pegged a hundred years ago when he wrote, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” You won’t find many downtown restaurant owners sleeping under the bridge, now, will you?

At the very least, the city must keep and make public accurate statistics on arrests made under these new laws.

Bob Martindale of SAMMinistries suggests that most of the aggressive panhandlers — the ones who lurk by the ATM while you are making a withdrawal or grab your elbow when you’re crossing the street with your kids — are not homeless at all. They are in organized gangs that make a tidy living playing on your sympathies. If that is the case, arrest ’em. I won’t lose any sleep over it.

But if they’re arresting the battered woman sleeping in her car because there wasn’t room at the shelter, shame on them. Shame on us.

Jesus continued in that chapter of Matthew, “I was in prison and you visited me.” Looks like we’ll be doing more of that in San Antonio.

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