by Jack Hamlin
A week ago, I saw the article about the “Don’t Feed Our Bums” sticker. I was on my way out the door to conduct three days of restorative justice mediation training which involves methods of collaboration and reconciliation. I have to admit, I was a bit furious about yet another sign of intolerance and hate, and no, my mind has not changed regarding the character of the stickers, but my fury has subsided. After all, as a mediator, neutrality is one of our goals, regardless of personal feelings.
And so rather than enter into the fray on these issues, and there are many here, and adding to the fire, engaging in more community polarization, I decided to take some time and reflect. And just maybe open a community door for a positive change. I still believe it is one of the core values in Ocean Beach.
I must admit, the vitriol from some of the contributors has me more than a little concerned. But it is good those who are upset are speaking out, rather than relying on a flash point incident which results in violence. The various views presented in the forum, however, are good indications we really do not know what the problem is.
First off, who are the people we are talking about?
Some of the names I have read and heard are of course,” homeless,” “bums,” “tumbleweeds,” and more recently “scumbags.” All are labels which regardless of your perspective, come with negative connotations.
I have also been reading how there are different categories of these people and based upon which category they fall into, some of us are more tolerant to them than others.
The bottom line is, however, they are all people…human beings, flesh and blood, brothers and sisters. And as such they have within them the same core values and needs you and I have; love, respect, honesty, community, compassion, happiness, etc.
So perhaps the first thing we, as a community need to do, is look these people in the eye and treat them as we would another human being. Whether that is saying, “good morning,” as you pass each other on the street, or you engage in a dialogue as to why you would like them to not block your business’ doorway.
That brings us to what they do. Some of these people are just there. We see them walking down the street, we see them sitting in the park or on the sea wall, using the beach and park as it is meant to be. They just do not fit into our preconceived media fueled notion of what people should look like when they go into public, particularly when they are carrying all their earthly possessions with them.
Some these people are exceptionally industrious. Some of the music I hear is quite good and I do not mind dropping spare change into the hat. I have seen them selling little crafts on the sidewalk to make money. I am always amazed at those who peddle their bicycles to the recycling center loaded down with our trash which they have collected to sell for future uses.
As for those we perceive as “trust fund hippies,” I ask who are you to judge why this particular young man or woman has opted out of our conventional world. I hear complaints about how they look like “hippies” but they use a debit card. It is a bit incongruous to complain about them being homeless, but paying their way. But that is entirely a different discussion.
On the other hand, there are those who do not work. I find it sad to see a man or woman deep in the depths of addiction with a little hand written sign asking for money for the next “fix” be it alcohol, meth or some other mind numbing substance. Of course, the behaviors they engage in when they are fueled with their substance of choice is something none of us want to be witness to, yelling, fighting, stumbling, etc. They are damaged, the source is not known, we do not care…simply take your damaged self out of my sight and my life. Is that who we are?
And yes, they urinate, defecate and whatever else in public. And yes, it is annoying, and yes it has the potential for disease. And yes we moved or work in this community because we like the beach, and for the most part, the sun, and all that comes with it. And yes, we do not like what those people do, but what do we do. We get angry, and we say angry things and we write angry letters, we polarize our community into a wonderful little for and against mentality…but what do we do, really?
Well actually we do a lot. All the churches in your community take the responsibility of feeding the homeless at least once every other week.
By the way when I have helped out, the second most popular aspect behind the food and sitting at a table is the bathroom. So I really do not think in my heart of hearts those who urinate and defecate outside do it by choice.
We have mobile clinics. We have outreach services. We collect food and supplies. And while these efforts are a part of the community, they are more specifically from the faith based community. It takes all the community, however, and not merely one part. We are fragmented in our efforts, and it does not take care of the greater problem of where. Where do we send these people to use a toilet, to bathe themselves and to sleep safely at night?
Which brings me back to the stickers. Somebody has done something. Not a positive something, but something nonetheless. Fed up with the inconvenience created by some of our people, and admittedly it can be a nasty inconvenience, a message of intolerance has been spread…and for a profit.
The Black, however you feel about it as a business is not counter-culture. It has been in the business of cashing in on the counter-culture for forty years. So get all the romantic “hippiness” out of your mind in discussing The Black. There is a reason it has managed to survive for forty years, and that is because it serves a commercial purpose to the community. But they have made a statement, albeit one of intolerance.
But I am glad they have…really.
When my students ask me constitutional questions about the Klan and the Neo-Nazis, I reply, let them march, let them spout their rhetoric of hate and intolerance, let them dress up in their bed sheets and kinky uniforms (yes that was judgmental). Better to know who they are and what their message is, than have them operate as some mysterious underground movement.
The stickers have provided the proper flash-point, unintentional and non-violent. Perhaps now we can begin a dialogue within the community to address the problems created by a segment of our community.
It will take work. It cannot be done alone. It cannot be done in a vacuum. A group of us tried and started, but fizzled a few months ago. But we tried.
So again, I will make this offer. If you want to be a part of the solution and want to look back at this time and said I did something, let me know. I believe we can do something, but the operative word is “do.”
Ocean Beach is a dynamic place, not stagnate. But above all, it has always been known as a community unto itself. We can keep it that way. We can keep our community, and we can make it one of which we are proud. The door is open…..
Jack Hamlin, a third generation OBeachen, former OB beat cop and retired trial attorney, is a teacher and works extensively in the field of Restorative Justice as a trainer, mediator, writer and speaker. He is active with his parish, the Sacred Heart of Ocean Beach.