Evicting the Homeless

by Tommi Avicolli-Mecca on April 7, 2009

“They are tagging us because we are homeless,” said Pattie Barnes. “It feels like a concentration camp.” It may feel that way, but it’s actually an officially sanctioned homeless tent city in Ontario, California near Los Angeles that has, not surprisingly, swelled from 20 to over 400 residents in just nine months. The growing population has attracted the health and safety concerns of local police and code enforcement officers. In an effort to regulate who lives there, they are tagging campers to separate those who are residents of the city from those who are not, and offering the non-residents a free taxi ride back to their hometowns.

Three colors are being used by police to identify those in the camp: Blue means Ontario resident who can stay in the tent city, orange means more proof is needed in order to remain, and white means eviction. Pattie Barnes ended up with an orange tag.

The encampment was set up near the city’s international airport with tents, toilets and water. It was intended for a small number of people, but when officials turned a blind eye to the space, people naturally arrived from other locales.

Brent Schultz, Ontario’s housing and neighborhood revitalization director, said that “this was for Ontario’s homeless and not the region’s homeless. We can’t take care of the whole area.”

He and other officials want to bring the number of homeless in the encampment down to about 170. “By next Monday (April 5) we should have everyone who is supposed to be gone out of here,” said Det. Jeff Higbee of the Ontario Police. “The wristbands are only temporary so we can identify everyone.”

Residents who can stay will be given 90-day permits that are renewable.

Even if a person has a blue tag and can stay, that doesn’t mean his or her dog can. Officials posted a sign restricting pets from the site, a move that has angered residents.

“I will go to jail before they take my dog,” Diane Ritchey told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s a part of me as much as anything. The dogs are as homeless as we are.”

Thankfully, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California was on hand at the site. “We are concerned,” said Peter Bibring, a staff attorney, “that however they go about trying to reduce this population they don’t depend on arrests or property seizures for people who have no other place to go and are just looking for a place to sleep.”

Like more and more Americans today.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italians Sailing Beyond Columbus, and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, which will be published June 1 by City Lights Books. His website: www.avicollimecca.com

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