The right to housing is also the right to shit in peace:
We build a latrine in a homeless camp
On Saturday April 5 four friends and I went to the homeless encampment in Sacramento, California and built a simple pit latrine. With all the media attention this camp has received, and all the sympathetic statements by the mayor and even the governor (who’ve both visited the camp twice in the past month) it seemed remarkable to us that something as basic as a latrine had not been built. At one end of the camp is the transmitting tower of KSMH, a Christian radio station considered to be the flagship of the Immaculate Heart Radio Network. And the camp is tucked in right next to Blue Diamond Almonds, a union-busting company that has the largest stake in one of the biggest cash crops in California. But these landmarks of charity and wealth only serve to highlight the deep contradictions that exist at the margins of our land of plenty.
While we were there, we were told by several people that some portable latrines had been brought in weeks ago but were quickly removed. One resident told us this was because the utility company, who owns the land, complained. Another resident told us it was because someone had lit one of the latrines on fire. In any case, all the 200 or so residents of the camp had left were one nearly full hole in the ground covered with boards. So, as a way to support the right of people to live someplace without being constantly harassed— and to take a stand in a region among the most severely affected by the fallout of the world economic crisis—we decided to build a little toilet.
We only decided to carry out the project after first visiting the camp on March 18 and talking to the residents about their situation and whether they would be in favor of something like that. We knew people would want a toilet, but we were concerned about attracting police by building it and we didn’t want to bring any heat that people didn’t want. We also wanted to know what people would do if they were asked or forced to leave. Beyond simple charity, we wanted to support those who might assert their right to stay. In a freak coincidence, Governor Schwarzenegger and Mayor Kevin Johnson arrived that day at the same time that we did, and we heard directly from them (as we forcefully disagreed) that they planned to move the residents out. The governor’s comments included the familiar repetition of the state orthodoxy that disclaims any responsibility for homelessness: “Some of these people want to live outside.” He added the rationale for moving them from this specific location: “They can’t stay here, this land is toxic.” I wasn’t able to confirm this last statement, but looking around at all the lush grass growing around the camp, it certainly didn’t seem any more toxic than the freeway underpasses and abandoned doorways where these people would otherwise sleep. And, toxic or not, all the region’s shelters are full and have been turning away dozens of people per day for many months now.
There has been much contention in the media about the difference between the “new homeless” population – who are victims of the latest economic crisis – and the “chronically homeless” population, who are there because of drug addiction or mental illness or both. As the argument seems to go, the former are more deserving of our sympathy and help because it’s not their fault that the speculative economy crashed, whereas the latter are just an unavoidable fact of life and we just have to learn to accept that there will always be a certain minority of people who just can’t make it. Obviously, this is just another distracting argument over how best to divvy up the crumbs while capitalists—whose deep corruption is nevertheless obvious to all—walk away with the whole pie. But the inflation of this issue is also consistent with the greater American amnesia and social Darwinism, which together allow millions of people to be dismissed and forgotten as soon as they lose their job or address. In any case, whether or not our current government offers a helping hand to those most in need, it seems clear that the helping hand that has allowed the most reckless (or “innovative”) of the banking class to loot our future is finally coming under intense and angry scrutiny. It is in this light too that we chose to go to Sacramento, where the homeless are surrounded by literally hundreds of empty homes owned by precisely these bankers. It is an area where the constant, slow-burning American class war, and particularly its (for now) losing side, has lately become painfully and embarrassingly obvious. As headlines around the country continue to alarm the middle classes, whose once-assured stability increasingly tilts toward precariousness (of the kind that millions have already been feeling for decades), we wanted to put solidarity into practice—if even in this minor way—and start building a broad base to confront the latest capitalist crisis together.
The response to our project on the day we built the latrine was almost completely positive. A few people thought it was a waste of time since the camp would be moved anyway, but most people we talked to appreciated the effort. Some folks offered us supplies to help us build the thing. The most important meetings for me were with the people who expressed a determination to stay where they were and not be moved to another temporary shelter. (The state will soon attempt to move them to the state fairgrounds nearby, until the actual state fair occupies the space in August). Even some residents with obvious drug or mental problems who talked to us were up to date on the deepening world crisis, and everybody knew that there was something profoundly unjust going on.
It may be that building a latrine in a homeless camp is a mere drop in the bucket in the context of the deep social alienation that keeps the working class from concerted action, but as unemployment and homelessness soar in the United States it seems increasingly important to struggle on this terrain: to demand the basic human right to shelter and survival as modern day robber barons crassly attempt to walk away from the “disaster” they engineered. We expect to see more self-directed efforts among the homeless and other dispossessed people, and we seek to support these wherever we can. Hopefully, such efforts will only be the start of a bigger and broader attempt to re-create our society according to our needs and our boldest desires.