In Los Angeles, the homelessness crisis is extreme. More than 12,500 people are recorded as being ‘chronically homeless’ in the city – the highest number of any US city. Recently, one man has started making tiny houses, like the one pictured below, to offer homeless people emergency shelter and the opportunity to get off the streets. Elvis Summers has met with extreme opposition.
Formerly-homeless California resident Bud Stratford was horrified by the city’s confiscation of these houses. He got in touch with INSP to donate this article, in which he argues that the homelessness crisis reveals a fundamental right that Americans are missing – the right to simply exist.
This is the first in a two-part series. Read more here.
By Bud Stratford
I’d like to start by saying this clearly and concisely: I am, in no way shape or form, a completely unbiased reporter in the telling of these stories. Quite the opposite, actually; I’m an extremely biased homeless advocate and supporter. Of course, this is due to the simple fact that, unlike most Americans, I’ve actually experienced “homelessness” in my life.
I’ve put “homeless” in quotes, however, because unlike most homeless people in this country, I wasn’t completely destitute, or devoid of all hope, resources, or support. My brief encounter with “homelessness” was much more akin to an extended camping trip. Because that’s exactly what it was.
So, here’s what happened: my girlfriend kicked me out. Not only did she kick me out; she kicked me out with no notice at all, and with an extremely tiny window to get my stuff packed, and off the premises. Twenty-four hours was the edict, if I’m not mistaken. Quite a challenge, to most people. But not so much, to me.
The reason for my cavalier attitude was that I still had a lot going for me. First of all, I still had my job… and a very, very good Executive Management job, at that. I had a swanky office that included a full-size refrigerator, a sink, and a microwave. The office had storage, so I could keep a few sets of clean clothes close at hand. I had a gym membership, so taking a shower (after a good workout) was absolutely possible. And, I had money in the bank. So I could even eat out from time to time, or procure whatever else I may need while I started the search for more permanent quarters… which I found, and put a down payment on, within days of being evicted from my girlfriend’s house. Unfortunately, my new digs wouldn’t be move-in-ready for a little over a month. Thus, my month of relative homelessness.
But, I had a few other things thing close at hand that ended up being absolutely crucial. Just a few months prior, I had built myself a very clever, very adorable, and very utilitarian little micro-camper. Inspired by teardrop campers [compact caravans]… but, different by design… mine was a very simple and straightforward ‘box’ mounted on a Harbor Freight utility trailer. But it worked, and worked great for my immediate needs. It was comfortable, cozy, safe, and secure. That gave me shelter. And a pretty damn spiffy shelter, at that.
I also had – due to my position at the company as both Executive Management, and the owner’s son – support. I had people that cared about me (and my future), and willing to tolerate my existence when I needed it. Because of that, I was offered a place to park the camper: in the walled, gated, and alarmed compound immediately behind the office. That gave me security of place. And lastly, I had the final thing that made me an actual, valid person, instead of some sort of hapless “loser”: I had a valid physical and mailing address. Which implied to the rest of the world (but, certainly didn’t prove) that I possessed property. That allowed me to carry on the day-to-day business of paying bills, etc.
With these things in hand, I knew that I could survive… thrive, even… indefinitely. Even if my apartment fell through, I knew that I was going to be just fine.
And that gave me hope.
Dave is the fellow that turned me from a temporary homeless person, to a permanent homeless advocate.
I met Dave one day, as I was leaving the office to go to the gym. He flagged me down, because he needed help; his battery had died, and he needed a jump. Being ‘Mr Perpetually Prepared’ for almost anything, I happened to have a set of jumper cables in my car, and a willingness to lend a helping hand. Dave was literally up-and-running in just a few minutes. But while I was fiddling around with untangling the jumper cables, I noted that he seemed to have an awful lot of his life’s possessions in the back of his truck.
Dave, naturally enough, was a little embarrassed by my keen observation. He got immediately defensive and apologetic. Strangely enough, he was in very much “in the same boat” as I was. He had a job, and he was working – he startled me by pulling a giant wad of cash out of his pocket, to prove his point – but he just hadn’t saved enough dough to get himself a permanent place to live. So, in the meantime, he was living in the bed of his pickup truck.
I invited Dave to come and stay in my company’s parking lot. I felt it was the least that I could do. I had people that cared about my safety and security; Dave didn’t. But what Dave did have, was a work schedule that mandated that he leave early in the morning (well before my office staff would arrive to work), and get back late at night (well after my office staff had left for the day). This, I thought, was just perfect! There was no way in hell that anybody (especially me) would ever get into any sort of trouble at all!
Oh, how wrong I was…
The basic human right (that not everyone shares)
I remember it quite clearly. I was sleeping, quite comfortably, in my camper. It was a cool, clear Arizona night. The stars were shining brightly, and the neighbourhood was typically quiet. A great night to get some solid, restful sleep.
Five hours later – it must have been midnight, maybe one in the morning – I was jostled awake by the sound of walkie-talkie chatter, and bright, flashing blue and red lights that flooded the entire property. Cops. Always bad news.
So I got up, brushed off my duds, scratched my butt, wiped the sleep from my eyes, emerged from the camper, and went around the corner to see why in the hell I was being jostled awake at such a ridiculous hour.
The reason was Dave. He was getting interrogated by the police. Dave, being the honest Joe that he was, was emphatically trying to explain that he wasn’t trespassing (which was what he was being charged with); he actually, believe it or not, had permission to sleep there from some big, huge, Executive Management-type guy that ran the place. Which, of course, the cops believed to be absolute horseshit. Until Mr Executive Management Himself came storming around the corner, mad as hell.
You’d think that the cops of this country would respect Executive Capitalists. We, after all, manage the profitable businesses, and generate the tax revenues that pay their hefty salaries and benefits. But on this night, I didn’t get a damn bit of respect, or consideration. Suddenly, I was the pre-presumed guilty suspect. But not for long. Because I had the security code for the building; the keys to get into said building; my drivers’ license; my corresponding ‘Mr Important’ business card; my corresponding swanky, corner office, with my name all over it… dozens of semi-trucks, emblazoned with that very same name… so what else would you like to see, Mr Officer? Do you really need any more proof that it’s well within my right to exist anywhere on this property however I so choose, and whenever I like?
That was an eye-opening experience. It really drove home the realities of being a citizen, in this Great Country of Ours. For all of the “rights” that we supposedly have – the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, the right to conduct business, the right to own property, and the right to worship Gods of our own choosing, the right to buy hookers (sometimes), the right to destroy the environment, and the right to hoodwink people out of their capital being some of the more important of them – the only “right” that we apparently don’t have, is the right to merely exist.
You only have that right, as it turns out, if you’re “successful” at life. Or in my case, a ‘Successful Entrepreneur’. And it was only because I had that right – and was freely willing to extend that right to Dave – that he had any rights to exist at all.
That’s when I decided that something had to be done to change The System. Because The System should be engineered to protect everybody. All of our citizens, equally.
Not just, the citizens that happen to have means.
Your nonexistent right to exist
My first bright idea was to simply take my wad of fast cash and start building trailer-less micro campers. Or, put another way: tiny houses.
The Tiny House Movement parallels, to a lesser or greater degree, the Tiny Camper Movement, the Sustainable Living Movement and the Minimalist Lifestyle Movement. All are motivated by the same idealistic principles: We Don’t Need More Stuff. We can do more with far, far less. And when it comes to taking care of our homeless, we are all realizing that this can actually be done very, very inexpensively. Much to the disagreement and chagrin of our elected officials. Probably because, they’re not bright enough to figure this sort of stuff out.
The travesty here is that we have a lot of charitable activists in America that are perfectly willing to donate whatever it takes to take care of these people. It’s not a question of having the resources, the ambition, or the motivation to get the job done; the resources, the ambition, and the motivation are all, right there.
Elvis Summers, and the current homeless controversy in Los Angeles, is an excellent case in point. Elvis was one of those golden souls that genuinely, and selflessly, wanted to help other people. Last year, South LA man Elvis Summers started building tiny houses and giving them to homeless people in his area. With his group of volunteers, he has donated dozens of houses to homeless people in LA.
These wooden houses-on-wheels are about the size of a big parking space, with two windows and a door that can be locked. The local government has consistently argued that they are an eyesore and attract crime. Last month they ordered that they be removed.
What Elvis did right, in retrospect, is that he simply didn’t bother to ask permission, from anyone, to do what he wanted to do. He simply started building houses. However, from the Mayor’s standpoint, the one thing that he did wrong was that he didn’t ask for anyone’s permission to do what he wanted to do.
What the problem ultimately comes down to is a question of legality. Because the government’s mandate does not include enforcing the right of its people to exist. And because these people, from a legal standpoint, do not exist (as productive and useful members of our social framework, at the very least) then, the government ultimately has no duty to protect their nonexistent right to exist.
I chalk this up to an oversight on the part of our Founding Fathers. I think that The Founding Fathers simply took for granted an individual’s fundamental and unalienable right to exist. I really don’t think that they even questioned the notion. However, this fundamental right to exist does run headlong, in our modern society, into another quite obvious (to most people, at least) right that we all have: the right to own property. Existing by default always means taking up space, somewhere. But if you don’t have the means to either purchase, rent or obtain permission to occupy private property – and being the country that we’ve become, every single square inch of it is ultimately owned by somebody, somewhere – then what are you supposed to do? Cease to exist?
And that, right there, is exactly how our government chooses to cope with this problem. Deep down, I believe that their hope, wish, and strategy for “solving the homeless problem” is simply to regulate, legislate and enforce those people’s lives right out of existence. That might seem blunt, cruel, harsh, cynical, or jaded. But if you look at what the City of Los Angeles, along with scores of cities and towns all across this great country of ours, is actually doing on a day-to-day basis the strategy becomes all-too-clear. Either move ’em, or enforce ’em… literally… to death. That’s the strategy.
But we can certainly do better. And, we certainly should.
The ‘right to life’
The reason that we have “class warfare” in this country today is because of our society’s hypocrisy on the merits, and the legalities, of these issues. Not only do the [legally recognised] right of individuals to own private property regularly cross paths with, and bump heads against, an individual’s (legally unrecognised) right to exist, but a great majority of the time, if and when these two issues meet in the courtroom, the judgement of the gavel will invariably fall in favour of the property owner’s right to do whatever he wants to do with his property. Including casting others out of it, if that’s what he or she chooses to do, which is an important right in this country. But one that unfortunately, and regularly, trumps the rights of people without means to even exist.
Our society’s hypocrisy comes immediately to light, once we consider the ‘Right To Life’ movement. It is a movement that maintains that unborn children in the womb, have very real and tangible rights to exist. But once they’re out of the womb suddenly, those people no longer have the right to exist, until they’re lucky or skilful enough to obtain property rights of their own, and exercise them. Or the ‘All Lives Matter’ movement (a cynical counterpoint to the Black Lives Matter movement), which should really be saying, ‘All Lives Matter… As Long As They Have Suitable and Sufficient Means’.
Now, what kind of sense does that really make?
If all lives truly mattered, wouldn’t that extend to the poor just as much as it applies to everybody else?
If the government – including the government of Los Angeles – can do nothing else to help, save or protect these people, they should, at the very least, be willing to define and defend a citizen’s right to exist. At the end of the day, that’s the only thing that Elvis Summers ever wanted out of the government. And it’s the very thing that the Mayor declined to provide; a safe haven where the houses could stand, and where their inhabitants could exist. Elvis and his volunteers could have – and surely, would have – taken up the fight, funded the initiative and built the houses from there.
Having the homeless in one, defined area has other benefits. It’s far easier for charities to help these people, if they know how, and where, to find them. I can only imagine that it must take a small army of volunteers to scour the city, trying to search out people that – for the sake of their own safety, security and interests – really do not want to be found. It is an astronomical waste of charitable resources to have to resort to this.
Centralised safe zones could also expedite the delivery of the other services that these people surely need, such as counselling, health care, access to sanitation and water, as well as services to help people secure jobs and permanent housing, all of which could enable these people to transition off the streets.
If they were in a defined safe place, then that safe place could also be easily policed and secured. I find it a little strange that the city can post police officers around an empty lot in Los Angeles, today, to secure the tiny houses that were taken from the homeless, impounded, and are currently slated for destruction. But this very same city would apparently never consider putting security forces around inhabited tiny houses, to protect the disadvantaged and the destitute citizens that live in them from harm.
The city, I’m sure, could very easily make these things happen. How difficult would it be for a self-insured government entity, with the power to exercise eminent domain, to secure an empty lot, or an abandoned property somewhere, and earmark it for just this purpose? The government uses eminent domain for all kinds of public works projects, all the time; how would this public works project be any different? Maybe because they perceive that it would be unpopular?
And that leads me to the saddest conclusion of them all. It’s not that they can’t do these things. The problem is: they don’t want to. It serves none of their interests to do so. Those people are highly unlikely to vote. They have no wealth or power. They can’t make campaign contributions. So, as citizens, the political machine in this country deems them absolutely worthless. As do most of our citizens.
A government that decides to selectively protect the right of its citizens cannot be trusted to protect our rights at all. The right to exist absolutely has to be protected by government. If people do not have that fundamental right, then no other right matters.