For the past two weeks, the homeless advocacy group SHARE has been camping outside city council members' houses to protest the council's refusal to give them $50,000 for bus tickets to and from shelters. Yesterday, the group declared victory when several private individuals gave them enough money to buy bus tickets for a month.
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But not every SHARE client participated in the protests. And at least one, a Tent City resident, told council members she had been barred from SHARE's shelter for refusing to participate in the campouts. "I am being told I must engage in a protest I do not support or be evicted from my tent," she wrote.
In a separate email, the Tent City resident added, "For any of you who have any doubt that this protest is mandatory - Don't doubt. It is camp out or get out. If it is was voluntary then those who wanted to go would and those who didn't wouldn't."
A number of other homeless people who use SHARE's shelters have written and called council members' offices, charging that SHARE coerced them into participating in the protests, telling them, among other things, that they would not be welcome at SHARE's city-funded shelters if they didn't take part in the campouts. Several participants alleged that SHARE's shelters emptied out during the protests, as clients were required to sleep on sidewalks outside council members' homes if they wanted to use SHARE's shelters in the future.
Council member Tim Burgess, who was the first target of the group's protests, says that when he talked to several protest participants the morning after their campout, they told him unequivocally that they had been required to participate in exchange for shelter.
"A lot of people said they were given a choice: Participate in the protest or sleep on the street," Burgess says.
SHARE spokeswoman Michele Marchand says the SHARE clients' claims are "absolutely untrue"; the group's central committee will be issuing a statement responding to the allegations tomorrow afternoon.
However, earlier this month, SHARE staffer Scott Morrow wrote a memo to SHARE shelter residents that makes it clear that SHARE residents are required to participate in the campouts if they want to live at Tent City (and possibly other SHARE shelters), at least until "the struggle" to get extra money from the city "is over."
Here's an excerpt from the memo (note the use of euphemisms for sleeping somewhere other than the shelter: e.g., "leave the community" "stepping away," etc.):
"SHARE has... made clear that those not wishing to work together at this time can leave the community while the struggle is on and then return when the struggle is over - with no fear of retaliation or black mark.
"This tolerant approach has not assuaged the Tent City4 Protester [the female tent city resident mentioned below]. She continues to complain far and wide about having to do what everyone else has to do. ...
"SHARE very much wants to keep the Tent Cities open, but there must be a fair exchange. This broad outline was agreed to months ago—in exchange for staying open during this crisi, 25 Tent City Participants be at the sleep outs, when necessary, every other night. ...
"Which is not to suggest that anyone likes having to do these sleep outs. Some are stepping away while they go on, and there have been lots of civil and intelligent agreements about this strategy."
The memo also notes that the Tent City resident who refused to participate in the protest (who was only one of several SHARE clients to complain that they felt coerced into taking part in the sleepouts) was told "she could go to [the Downtown Emergency Service Center], an emergency shelter provider that is frequently full and is plagued with bedbugs.
SHARE staffers confirmed that they did require residents of both Tent City and SHARE shelters to participate in the protests, but said they were given the option of doing 16 hours of work for the organization if they chose not to participate in the sleepouts. Initially, Tent City residents bore more of the burden of the protests (because SHARE shelter residents were encouraged to ask bus drivers to take them to their shelters for free, and only those who weren't allowed on buses participated in the campouts); later, however, shelters were told that half their residents had to participate in the campouts each night, on a rotating basis.
On October 8, 10 days after the campouts began, one SHARE shelter client told the council in an email,
If anyone has noticed more homeless sleeping in bushes and alleyways they can put the responsibility for that on SHAREs Central Committee and their mandate to the homeless they purport to help. ...
SHARE shelters screen applicants six days a week at the Josephenium Hotel downtown; half the shelters screen on alternate days and the tent cities screen onsite. Usually, there are approximately 50 applicants for 10 15 openings at the Josephenium Hotel. These numbers have reversed during the SHARE Central Committees mandated protests. At a recent screening there were 50 openings with only 12 applicants showing up. At least one of these applicants refused shelter after it was explained to him what would be expected from him during the protest.
Many of these openings have resulted from shelters being required to turn residents out on the street for not participating in the protests and some shelters have been closed entirely for lack of participation.
Contacted by email, the SHARE client confirmed his account of events, and said that he had participated in the protests. "The choice was to either participate or 'take a hiatus' from our respective shelters."
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City council members also report getting calls from SHARE campout participants asking them to intervene in what they called the involuntary protests.
In a voice mail, one man who identified himself as a SHARE shelter resident told council member Richard Conlin, "We have to participate in a protest around different members of the city council’s homes. They’re forcing us to do this or they’re denying us shelter. ... I feel this is wrong. We’re being forced into participate, we don’t want to participate, and they’re not offering us a choice."
SHARE staff confirms that the protests will continue in a month if the city continues to refuse to provide the $50,000. Although city council members counter that they did offer SHARE the money in exchange for an agreement that SHARE would keep its shelters open all year, SHARE staffers say that they aren't sure they'll have enough funding to keep the shelters open in November and December—typically the most expensive months, at around $80,000 a month.
On November 3, voters will be asked to approve a $145 million housing levy that will create 1,800 units of permanent affordable housing. SHARE has not campaigned for the housing levy, focusing instead on emergency shelter space.