- Since early 2007, St. Petersburg has passed 6 new ordinances that target homeless people. These include ordinances that outlaw panhandling throughout most of downtown, prohibit the storage of personal belongings on public property, and make it unlawful to sleep outside at various locations.
- In January 2007, the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender announced that he would no longer represent indigent people arrested for violating municipal ordinances to protest what he called excessive arrests of homeless individuals by the City of St. Petersburg. According to numbers compiled by the public defender's office, “the vast majority of people booked into the Pinellas County Jail on municipal ordinances were homeless individuals from St. Petersburg."
Sunday, November 29, 2015
More Volunteers Needed To Serve The Homeless
All Year, Not Just During the Holidays
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
Another Thanksgiving has gone by, and I have once again seen the usual fanfare on various media about hundreds of volunteers coming out to feed the homeless this past week. It then occurred to me that, besides Thanksgiving and Christmas, what do all these homeless people do the remaining 363 days of the year? Before you say, “Get a darn job!”, allow me to point out that I once wound up homeless myself. I never thought I would end up homeless. I thought I was well educated and diligent enough to avoid that fate. I also had the opinion that, since I was in the computer field, there would always be plenty of work. It used to be that a busy man was a prosperous man, but that's no longer true. It's been over 7 years since I have been in that kind of potentially dangerous predicament, but the memories are still fresh in between my ears. After spending the final 7 years of my former IT career working a series of 'temp' jobs that eventually ran out in 2008, I wound up homeless after using up the last of my resources. I am far from being a lazy man – I worked for 35 years. But I developed significant medical problems when I hit my fifties, so now I'm semi-retired while trying to carve out another career as a writer and minister. But my point right here is that homelessness can happen to nearly anybody, except for the rich. My 21 years in IT and the technology businesses did not exempt me or insulate me from the effects of an American economy that has been in a tailspin for years. My current home and office, along with the church I attend, are located in what can only be described as a blighted neighborhood about 2 miles west of downtown Atlanta. I am seeing encouraging signs lately that this run-down area where I live is slowly undergoing a gradual transformation that will someday convert this area into a live/work/play green space surrounded by residential streets lined with newly remodeled houses, many of which date back to before World War II.
Unfortunately, the reality today is that about one third of the houses I just mentioned are currently boarded up, and some of them haven't been lived in for many years. Since there are a lot of transient and homeless people in this poverty-stricken area, a lot of them are currently living in these abandoned homes with no electricity or running water. Consequently, we have men, women and children living in third-world conditions right here in the United States, even in our midst! The primary cause of this can be laid at the feet of the public education system in America, but also because of institutionalized racism. Over 95% of the homeless people in this area are African-American, and it is minorities and people of color who are being cheated out of higher education or vocational training opportunities. This is a social injustice, and my ministry is devoted to helping out those that I can, either on my own where possible or through my church. Are you going through hard times yourself right now? I'm now living in some HUD apartments and I'm still in recovery from my experience. I am where I am because Christ was with me every step of the way, and if He can do that for me, He can accomplish that for you too.
America was once called “the land of milk and honey”. It was so named for the prosperity and promise associated with the opportunity that was once available to anyone who, when willing to work, could acquire a piece of the America Dream. In contrast, the old notion of hard work in the 21st century seems to mean little in our current system, where the elite control all the money. The associated greed so intrinsic they have robbed good, hard working Americans of their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness just so they could squander the money on endless wars overseas that are becoming increasingly dangerous. After a lifetime of effort in the chase for their piece of the pie, some Americans are finding themselves out in the cold, having lost their jobs and their dreams in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Some have fallen victim to not only Wall Street's criminal over speculation in a system that could not support such monetary betting, but to a banking system that committed wholesale mortgage fraud when looked to and trusted by home buyers for professional guidance! Many of these unfortunate people are quickly finding themselves added to the homeless numbers of America. Many are trying to survive the current economic depression by seeking federal assistance but have found, much to their dismay, that government programs, one of their only rays of hope during their time of tribulation, are being taken by the same group of people who assisted in their demise: Congress.
Those responsible for 2008's economic plunge and the ensuing chaos are trying to phase out social systems that provide those who are suffering a lifeline in the ocean of betrayal they are drowning in. Even worse, it seems to not matter to those surviving the current economic disaster. The top 1% of America's wealthy are scrambling to protect their own by supporting a political bureaucracy that has abandoned the remaining 99%. Like prisoners protecting their plate of food, these people are surrendering conscience for three squares and a warm cot of their own. In light of the actions taken – or inaction in some cases – by our governmental representatives, those from rural and suburban areas have had no choice but to abandon their townships and move toward the cities in search of shelter and whatever government aid they can get. They have migrated from everywhere to the urban centers of this nation in search of the remnants of their national security. But in place of the Golden Lamp, they have only found iron bars and cold, impersonal streets. In lieu of allowing the preservation of their survival, cities are beginning to enact anti-homeless initiatives to drive them back to where they came while those responsible for this treachery receive record bonuses and wallow in ill-gotten gains. St. Petersburg, Florida is a prime example of such inhuman approaches. The City enacted new laws back in 2011 towards the criminalization of homelessness. A report that same year by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless, tells much about the current war on these unfortunates:
This is not the only American city to turn its back on those in need. Across America, the painful cries of economic injustice coming from America's working people is being called to the forefront as the newest form of white-collar crime. Many laws have been put into place to criminalize people living in the streets, thereby dissuading them from coming to their cities at all. Both sides of the Congressional aisle have argued the semantics of the deficit crisis and the current economic strife, but the blame for the downfall of this once great nation means nothing when one is huddled beneath a dirty blanket trying to survive the cold or going hungry. The homeless only know that their basic American rights have been denied. Even cave men lived in caves! Are they better than us? Adding insult to injury, those Congressional representatives who were put into office to ensure the continuation of our American system, are trying to take even more from them.
Many conservatives have complained that the US has become a “nanny state”. They expound upon the belief that we must no longer allow the expenditure of US tax dollars to go to those who supposedly will not help themselves. This may have been a valid approach in strong economic times of yesteryear when work was plentiful and the American Dream was alive but now, in the shadow of Bush Era gluttony and growing neo-liberal faux patriotic oligarchy, it stands as a slap in the face of hard working Americans waking to the American nightmare. Some on the left, voted into office by an American public that needed to be protected, are making deals to further empower the elite in order to acquire their own earmarks and campaign contributor benefits. They too, seem to have lost sight of what America used to stand for. The only security this country seems to care for anymore is the one that allows for funds to be taken from social services and used for illegal and unnecessary wars, Patriot Act driven oppression and corporate welfare entitlements. Those unfortunate souls who have to stand in line for a warm bed in an overcrowded dormitory or in a food kitchen line to get a modest meal, are painfully finding that many of their lifelines are being denied by the very country they pledged their allegiance to. Instead of solutions, politicians are only delivering rhetoric, excuses and false promises. In this, our country's greatest time of need, they would rather protect their own than fight for proper provision for the American people.
Many try to ignore these people as they represent the errors and gluttony of a nation lost but they are still American citizens and need to be cared for. The religious right and their Tea Party counterparts vehemently expound upon the protection of our borders against illegal immigrants, terrorists, foreign influences and protecting the Constitution for the preservation of America's citizens, but in the same breath they condemn or cut funding to social services that support Americans in their time of need. The simple reality is this: American governance has become detached from the lives lived by those whom it has been charged the protection and care of.
In America today, people who have been misguided enough to believe in the American system and lost their piece of the “American dream” because of it, are now increasingly angry and have become significantly more demanding about implementing some sorely needed reforms. We are insisting on genuine, authentic reforms to a broken government and to our economic system, which seems to work very well but for only an elite few. We as a nation are quickly falling into the realm of the second world – we are no longer a superpower. Those who continue to blindly follow the myth of American exceptional-ism will end up starting World War 3 and charbroiling the entire planet. The future of this nation and the world will indeed be dim if this bloodthirsty insanity is allowed to continue. The book of Isaiah says, “'Come now, let us reason together, you and I', thus says the Lord.” This is perfect advice for our modern times. All of humanity had better stop and think about what we want to do next.
Let's take a look and see what the Bible has to say about all this. First, an example from Christ himself. “Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, 'Teacher, what must I do to get eternal life?' 'Why do you ask me about what is good?', Jesus replied. There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments,' 'Which ones?', the man inquired. Jesus replied, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.' 'All these things I have kept', the young man said. 'What do I still lack?' Jesus answered, 'If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.' When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.' When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, 'Who then can be saved?' Jesus looked at them and said, 'With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible'.” (Matthew chapter 19, verses 16-26)
Now let's look at what the apostle James had to say about homeless people. “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well, keep warm and well fed', but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James chapter 2, verses 14-17 NIV) Homelessness has in the past been viewed as a state of laziness, but today it is a growing condition that represents a dying world power. The elite persist in the denial of this national illness, since its recognition would admit fault. At the end of the day, ignoring it will not lessen the inevitability that this, our once great nation, is now a declining empire. Many are on the brink of bankruptcy in this country – so are many small businesses – and where once lay the promise of prosperous times for all, there now exists the reality that we are all only one paycheck, one medical emergency or one misfortune away from being homeless in the land of milk and honey. Plus, one out of every four homeless people are minors under the age of 12. This is no way to run what is allegedly the greatest country in the world. Homelessness in America is inexcusable, and it's the government's fault.
Sunday, November 1, 2015
Jesus Wasn't A Conservative, And God Isn't Republican
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
In light of this past week's Republican debate on TV, which I didn't bother to watch, I thought it would be timely to comment on the state of conservatism in our country today as it relates to social and economic injustice. I like to relax and unwind at the end of each workday by watching a couple of hours of Christian television in the evening, primarily on TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network, channels vary so check your local listings) and You Tube. Most of the time the shows and the preaching are pretty good, although some programs are better than others. The best shows are the ones that go deepest into the Word as far as their interpretation of the Scriptures is concerned. The ones that aren't quite so good tend to get way, way out there as far as their teaching and preaching goes (such as the prosperity gospel and word of faith movements, among others), with the preachers espousing radically right-wing conservative interpretations of Scripture that are ill-informed at best, or bigoted, and even outright heresy at worst.
I have a pretty good idea as to why these right-wing neoconservative preachers and teachers have such an extremist view of the Bible. I think it's because their version of Scripture matches their arrogant beliefs, giving these types of people an egocentric viewpoint on their walk with Christ. Although these men and women TV ministers are certainly entitled to their own opinions, I strongly disagree as to their application of conservative ideology to the interpretation of the Scriptures. I have an even bigger problem with biblical quotations being used in such a way as to twist them around to fit a certain point of view or for financial gain (such as tithing according to Old Testament law instead of worshiping Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Law). Not all Christians are conservative right-wing extremists nor are we all evangelical Rush Limbaugh's. Many of us like myself are much more moderate for a couple of reasons. First, when we read the Bible, especially the four Gospels, we realize that Jesus was incredibly liberal by today's standards, and also far more peaceful then the current crop of presidential candidates who seem to be desperate to prove who among them is the most conservative. Twenty three years ago when I first gave my heart and soul to Christ, the Spirit of the Lord spoke to me clearly, saying that if I wanted to worship the Prince of Peace then it is necessary for me to become a man of peace (which I was not back then). So I pass that on every chance I get, and it most applies to anyone who has anger issues or who holds grudges. It's time for all of us to get go of those things.
Second, it has been my observation that the most religious people in public office or running for an election are often the most argumentative and most prone to resorting to violence to solve problems. Those who become indignant at the mention of the word 'abortion', showing their outrage before the TV cameras at the taking of a single unborn life, have no problem sending their/your sons and daughters off to war, and cheering when a predator drone blows up another house full of unarmed Afghan, Iraqi or Syrian civilians. God must be shaking His head in disbelief right about now. We as a nation have gotten to a point in our history now where the military-industrial-incarceration complex that’s still clinging to its soon-to-be former power and refusing to move on, is appealing to one of military history’s most colossal mistakes, basking in the glory of the act, while forgetting the bitter irony of the event.
The Christian right, which is neither, wants glory. They want credit for being the heroes, for saving civilization, drawing on the outdated legacies of World War Two and the Cold War. The irony is their narrow-mindedness, their lack of perception, and their superficial perspective on world events due to their refusal to learn the lessons of history, dooms them to be a curse upon their land. Nothing is getting done, because of the Conservatives of this land. And what are conservatives fighting to defend? One of the worst situations this country has been in for a long time. Want reform of the financial markets? Screw you, we're filibustering. Want health care reform? Too friggin' bad, forty thousand people a year can die so the rest can be charged twice as much as the rest of the world for comparatively inferior care.
Of course, resisting this evil and predatory system is painted as resisting big government and the “evil tax-and-spend liberals”. Some even call the American people's resistance as insurrection or as politically subversive (such as the Occupy and 99% Movements, among others). Never mind that we now have Obama-care, which is not the most desirable national health care out there but it's better than being completely uninsured and going to an ER for medical needs. Never mind that the conservative right-wingers own conduct speaks poorly to their skills as fiscal guardians (such as invading Iraq in 2003, among others). The Republicans have always needed their dark enemies to highlight their glorious crusades. They did it in Vietnam, twice in Iraq, and Afghanistan. Clandestine wars are ongoing in Libya, Yemen and Syria. Everything was about defending what GW Bush and his Congress was doing at the time, everything was about justifying colossal mistakes. Whether turning a soldier's request for more armor into another chapter in the epic of the “evil liberal media”, or blaming hurricane Katrina's death toll and the subsequent humanitarian disaster on the victims themselves, or coming up with a million different justifications for outing former CIA operative Valerie Wilson, the Republicans devoted themselves to the task of rationalizing failure on a massive scale. The most recent effort has been the prosecution of private Bradley Manning (or Chelsea, take your pick) due to his/her alleged “complicity” in helping Wiki-leaks and its founder, Julian Assange, publish a treasure trove of supposedly secret messages that exposed the sheer folly of America's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lies about it disseminated among the American people by those in positions of public trust.
President Obama has the right idea regarding his public option, otherwise known as “Obama-care”, putting everyone on a national health care system of sorts, but I would be surprised if he will be able to make us all pay for it. Instead, health care is a basic human right that should be given away to the general public without cost. Instead, conservative right-wingers have made any form of universal health care coverage in the US to be this great evil, health care reform has to be government taking decisions from your doctors hands. Never mind the facts. In fact, forget about 'em. The Republicans want grandiose rhetoric and emotionally overwhelming appeals. Nobody wants to talk about the underlying issues, such as the fact that our for-profit health care system is broken, and greed is what broke it to the point that it will have to be replaced. I have outlined one good way to go about this in my first book, “The Middle and Working Class Manifesto”, but I will give you the condensed version in three sentences. First, combine Medicare, Medicaid, all US government health care plans and the VA hospital system into a single national health care system. Second, streamline the various inter-agency departments by eliminating all duplicate positions. Third, abolish Medicaid since it will no longer be needed and have Web-based Medicare replace it all. For additional details, you'll have to buy the book.
If I sound angry here, that is only to be expected. This is what I've fought for during the last several years after having to take early retirement for medical reasons. I have been through all this stuff myself, seeing the system from the patient's point of view. I don't want to live in a country where the government exists in an alternate universe, where the politicians are so oblivious to reality. I don't want to live in a country where the needs of the top 1% of US economic affluence are taken care of with five-star service while the remaining 99% huddle in emergency rooms waiting their turn to see a doctor for hours on end. Since I don't have plans to leave this country that I love, I have plans to be part of a movement of millions answering the call around my nation, to make a new government that runs this country as a part of the reality-based community. Rather than jump the gun and jump to conclusions as it suits some ideology, I'm in favor of a government that is constantly on the move, doing objective good for this country.
I'm in favor of the conservatives finally coming to grips with the fact that their policies haven't been working. They can remain conservatives, keep on favoring conservative ideas, but what gives them the right to let things go straight 'to hell in a hand basket' to prove ideological points? They are more out of the majority than they've been in years in no small part due to their failure to put politics aside and deal with an emergency with the fortunes of the nation, rather than the fortunes of their party first and foremost. Failure is not an option for me. A government that lets things fail to prove political points is not doing its job. A government that justifies failure by making political points, is not worthy of governing this country.
For the last two decades, America has been the victim of unwise policies, policies that presupposed a willingness for restraint from the financial sector, policies that presupposed that preservation of a military strategy and distraction from a critical theater of battle would somehow lead to success. These were people who looked at our economy in the summer of 2008 and said 'the fundamentals of the economy were sound', right up until the point where the crash of September 2008-2010 made the obvious truth unavoidable. I don't want more government by people who are simply persisting in their policies until events overtake them and make it impossible for them to maintain the status quo. I want people who are adapting to our problems in advance, and allowing the government that flexibility.
The last thing this country needs is another decade or decades worth of governance from an outmoded capitalist economic system that cannot tell the difference between a defeat and a victory and resists all efforts to bring its attentions to these problems. The Democrats aren't perfect, like Obama might say. There is at least a recognition among the rank and file that the current situation is not to be tolerated, or continued. The charge of the Conservative Light Brigade should end, and this country should be allowed to get back to deciding what the wise thing is, not what is politically convenient to an unwilling, undignified minority.