It’s been some time now since Shanna Couper Orona has slept on the sidewalk, but she can’t forget the first time a police officer kicked the side of her tent in an encampment sweep in San Francisco.
The disorienting confusion of getting jarred awake at 3 in the chilly morning. The rush of fear that comes for any woman who hears unknown male voices at night. The ache in her back. “I poked my head out, and they said, ‘You have to get the fuck out’,” Orona said. “I said back to them, ‘I have to get the fuck out?’ And they said, ‘Oh, you got a smart mouth’?”
It’s hard to forget an encounter like that. It became even harder to forget when it happened time and time again to Orona in her four years on the streets – as well as to countless other homeless individuals, in San Francisco and beyond.
Now, with a renewed push to question the role of law enforcement in public safety after last summer’s protests, housing advocates and unhoused individuals in the US are asking why, far too often, armed police officers are still the first response to the complex crisis of homelessness – a response that often ends in violence and death.
And some are proposing solutions. In San Francisco, this questioning of the status quo has given rise to a new initiative to take police out of the homelessness response altogether. In Oregon, activists have introduced legislation that would prohibit law enforcement from enforcing a bevy of anti-homeless laws. But will cities follow through?
Anti-homeless laws exist in some form or another in jurisdictions all over the US, everything from trespassing and loitering, to the more severe ordinances of bans on tents, camping or sitting and lying down in public spaces. These laws have done nothing to solve homelessness, just criminalize it, advocates said.
A Guardian analysis in 2015 found that homeless people were 6.5 times more likely to be killed by police than the rest of the population. And police largely don’t have an answer when encampment residents ask them where they should go, as most local jurisdictions lack the supportive and affordable housing necessary to house the more than 567,000 living unsheltered in the US.
“Cops across the country have homeless units,” said Paul Boden, the executive director of the not-for-profit Western Regional Advocacy Project. “Why? Not to protect homeless people. You’re not trying to mitigate homelessness. You’re trying to mitigate the presence of homelessness.”
In 2019, the San Francisco police department responded to more than 65,000 calls about homelessness. Last year, the city’s police commission urged local stakeholders to come up with an alternative way to respond to homelessness.
Community leaders developed a proposal that would reroute all calls regarding homeless issues to the Compassionate Alternate Response Team (Cart), highly trained civilians tasked with de-escalation and conflict resolution through each situation.
“The goal, of course, is to address the root causes,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.
The team would aim to resolve the problem not just for the person calling it in, but for the unhoused individuals involved as well. If a woman calls about a drunk man leaning against her door, the team would speak to the man about going into a detox center, Friedenbach said. A police response would have most likely resulted in a drunk and disorderly citation and a night in jail. If neighbors were complaining about garbage from an encampment, the team could work with the city and encampment residents to schedule a cleanup while ensuring the encampment residents don’t lose their belongings, which happens often.
“This team is not going to solve the homeless crisis, but it is going to stop us from wasting money on the police response while also solve the calls coming in to 911,” Friedenbach said. “In terms of the deaths from police use-of-force and the trauma, we’ll be able to stop that with this team.”
Proponents of Cart estimate that the team would cost San Francisco $6.8m a year. The Board of Supervisors has already approved $2m. The other $4.8m would come from the police department’s budget.
The proposal came after London Breed, San Francisco’s mayor, redirected $120m from the budgets of the police and sheriff departments to the city’s underserved Black communities. In June, following nationwide demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd, Breed directed the police department to stop responding to non-criminal activities like homeless calls and said the city would develop a crisis-response program over the next year similar to one deployed in Eugene, Oregon.
But Breed has stopped short of throwing her support behind Cart. In November, she launched the Street Crisis Response Team, which responds to behavioral health calls within three specific neighborhoods.
“The early data has shown us that with over 100 cases that they’ve responded to, they’ve been able to help at least 34 of those individuals transition into something where they could get help,” Breed said in an interview with the Guardian.
Some individuals had to go into psychiatric detentions, Breed said. “But at the end of the day, they’re taking a very targeted approach involving people who know how to work with people who are struggling mentally,” she said. “I’m very proud of that. I think it’s made a noticeable difference to the conditions on our streets.”
Cart proponents say the Street Crisis Response Team doesn’t go far enough – it only covers behavioral health calls, a mere sliver of the calls that affect the total homeless population. The city also has a homeless outreach team, but this team is not dedicated to resolving issues between housed and unhoused residents.
Breed also maintained that while law enforcement should not be responding to all homeless calls, sometimes they are necessary for the safety of the workers.
“When it comes to someone who’s just homeless and sleeping in a tent somewhere, our goal is not to have the police respond to a situation like that,” she said. “But sometimes things can get a little bit challenging, where someone who is responding who is not a police officer, they may not feel safe. We’ve encountered situations of violence, attacks and other things. For us, I need to protect my workforce as well.”
Friedenbach called that assessment classist. “Housing status has nothing do with proclivity to violence,” she said. She pointed out that the city’s non-police Street Crisis Response Team is already responding to any unpredictability that may arise from mental health or drug addiction crises, suggesting that they could be handled without an armed police officer.
And when it comes to danger in the streets, most homeless people will say it comes from the police. Two weeks ago, Brian Martin, 42, woke up at 5 in the morning to a knife cutting through the tarp of his structure in San Francisco. “There was a police officer standing there, and they told me to step away from my door,” he said. “They handcuffed me and told us that we were going to be leaving.”
Under San Francisco’s tent ban, encampment residents must be given 24 hours’ notice before a sweep. Martin said he never received one, and was unprepared when the police arrived. He lost construction gear he used to make money on odd jobs, bicycles that he rebuilt to sell, clothes, electronics he collected off the street for his future home.
Worst of all, however, was the orthopedic brace and cane that Martin needs to walk after enduring six back surgeries. When he told the police he needed his brace, “They told me to shut my mouth,” he said.
“They wouldn’t let me have anything,” he said. “Every time I would ask them, ‘Can I grab that? That’s mine’. They said, ‘What job do you have to be able to afford something like that’?”
No one offered Martin housing after they swept his encampment two weeks ago. But Shanna Couper Orona, now a housing advocate, was able to help get him a temporary shelter bed.
Even though Orona no longer sleeps on the streets – she has an RV that she lives out of with her cat, Maison – she’s still a known entity in the unhoused world of San Francisco. A firefighter before she became homeless, she provides medical care for the unhoused and counsels individuals however she can.
“Most people are fearful of the cops because they have had interactions with the cops before,” she said. “And the way cops are doing things is only harming more people. People are done being bullied and done feeling like they’re nothing.”
The UN may have put hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees at risk of persecution or involuntary repatriation back to Myanmar after improperly collecting and sharing refugees’ personal information with Bangladesh, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which is urging an investigation.
But the refugees were largely uninformed that their personal data, which included photographs, fingerprints and biographical information, would be passed by the Bangladeshi government on to authorities in Myanmar with a view to possible repatriation, said Lama Fakih, crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch.
“The UN refugee agency’s data collection practices with Rohingya in Bangladesh were contrary to the agency’s own policies and exposed refugees to further risk,” said Fakih.
“[A] refugee has the right to control their data, who has access to it, and for what purposes, and UNHCR and other agencies should be accountable to those whose data they hold.”
The UN denied any wrongdoing or policy violations, stating that it had explained all purposes of the data-gathering exercise and obtained consent, according to UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic.
Each Rohingya refugee family was “asked to consent to their data being shared with partners on the ground for the purpose of receiving assistance … [and] separately and expressly asked whether they gave their consent to have their data shared with the government of Myanmar by the government of Bangladesh” to establish right of return, said Mahecic.
But 24 Rohingya refugees interviewed by HRW between September 2020 and March 2021 about their experience registering with UNHCR tell a different story. Of the 24 refugees, 23 said they were never informed the data would be used for anything beyond establishing aid access.
They were given a receipt, in English, with a box ticked stating they had agreed to the data being shared with Myanmar, but only three of the 24 refugees could read English.
One of the three interviewees who could read English said he only realised what had happened after his interview.
“After they took my data, they printed out a receipt. I walked back to my tent, and then I looked at the paper, and noticed that on the top there was a tick box that the person at the centre had marked as ‘yes’ without ever asking me, that my data would be shared with Myanmar,” he said.
“I was so angry when I saw that, but I had already given my data, and I needed services, so I didn’t know what I could do about it.”
Although the sample size of HRW’s research is small, it is likely that their findings are echoed throughout the Rohingya refugee population, said senior HRW researcher Belkis Wille.
“Bangladesh shared the names and details of 830,000 Rohingya with Myanmar, which broadly speaking is the entire Rohingya refugee population that came to Bangladesh. So that would suggest that nobody had any objection to having their data shared with Myanmar, at least in terms of the checkbox on the form,” said Wille.
“It is hard to imagine that not a single person had a concern and said no [to giving consent]. And that is one of the key reasons why we think what we saw in our individual interviews may be what you would see across the broader Rohingya population, which is that they weren’t being asked this question or, if they were, it wasn’t in a way that they understood or in a way that they felt comfortable saying no to.”
Of the 830,000 Rohingya whose data Bangladesh submitted to Myanmar, about 42,000 have been given right to return to their home country. They include 21 of the refugees interviewed by HRW, who said they only knew their data had been shared when they were informed they could return to Myanmar. All 21 have since gone into hiding out of fear of forced repatriation, HRW said.
UNHCR said that “any return to Myanmar must be based on the individual and voluntary choice of refugees” and that the UN would assist returns when conditions are conducive to safe and sustainable return, “which is not currently the case”.
China has joined Russia as an explicit danger to Western allies after a Nato summit in Brussels on Monday (14 June).
“China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security,” the 30 Nato leaders said in a joint communiqué.
“China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal with more warheads and a larger number of sophisticated delivery systems,” the statement added.
“It is also cooperating militarily with Russia, including through participation in Russian exercises in the Euro-Atlantic area,” it said.
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg highlighted the novelty of the text in his post-summit press conference.
“The first time [ever] we mentioned China in a communiqué and a document in a decision from Nato leaders was 18 months ago,” he noted, when Nato spoke of China-linked “opportunities and challenges” back in 2019.
“China’s not an adversary,” Stoltenberg noted.
But he also expanded on the list of its threatening activities.
“They [the Chinese] already have the … second biggest defence budget, and already the biggest navy, and they are investing heavily in new modern capabilities, including by investing in new disruptive technologies such as autonomous systems, facial recognition and artificial intelligence, and putting them into different weapon systems,” he said.
“They are really in the process of changing the nature of warfare,” Stoltenberg said.
He rejected the idea that Nato, whose core task was to defend the North-Atlantic region, was overstepping its treaty boundaries.
“To respond to the challenges we see that China poses to our security, is not about moving Nato to Asia … because we see that China is coming closer to us,” he said.
“We see China coming closer to us in cyber, controlling infrastructure in Africa and the Arctic, training together with Russia in North Atlantic waters,” he added.
The Nato pivot to China did not mean it had abandoned concern on Russia, whose malign activities, from waging war in Ukraine to blowing up warehouses in the Czech Republic, still dominated the communiqué, however.
“Until Russia demonstrates compliance with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities, there can be no return to ‘business as usual’,” the statement said.
China was named 10 times and Russia 62 times.
Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel also voiced a more China-friendly tone.
“Nato is a military organisation, the issue of our relationship with China isn’t just a military issue. It is economic. It is strategic. It is about values. It is technological,” Macron told press after the summit.
China was a “major power with which we are working on global issues to move forward together” as well as a “competitor”, he noted.
“It’s very important that we don’t … bias our relationship with China,” he said.
“China is not in the North Atlantic,” Macron added, going against Stoltenberg’s line.
“Russia, above all, is a major challenge,” Merkel also said, while noting the Nato communiqué reflected the fact the US was a Pacific-Ocean as well as an Atlantic power.
“If you look at the cyber threats, the hybrid threats, if you look at the cooperation between Russia and China, then you cannot simply negate China … [but] I do not think that we should overestimate the importance of this [Chinese threat],” she added.
For its part, China had not yet responded as of Tuesday morning.
The Nato summit came ahead of US president Joe Biden’s meeting with top EU officials in Brussels on Tuesday and with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday.
It signalled a return to normal after four years in which former US president Donald Trump had questioned the value of Nato and insulted Macron, Merkel, and others, while cozying up to Putin.
Back to normal
Nato’s mutual defence pact was “rock solid” and a “sacred obligation” for the US, Biden said.
“I want all Europe to know that … Nato is critically important to us,” he added.
“With Joe Biden … there is a clear understanding of the necessity of Nato,” Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said.
“I was able to work with Trump. Of course, it was a bit more awkward … but with Joe Biden, it’s more natural again,” he added.
Meanwhile, Biden gave away little on what he might say to Putin.
But he sounded more dovish than hawkish by excluding the idea of a Nato membership action plan for Ukraine, on grounds “they [Ukraine] still have to clean up corruption”.
He also said Putin was a “bright” and “tough” adversary.
“I will make clear to president Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he chooses,” Biden said.
The West needed a “robust dialogue” with Russia to “build a security framework for the European continent”, Macron also said.
The Tigray region in Ethiopia faces the grim prospect of a man-made famine. What can be done to end this slide into tribal conflict?
Alexander Mercouris, editor-in-chief at The Duran, and writer on international affairs with a special interest in Russia and law, and Dr. Kenneth Surin, Professor Emeritus of literature and professor of religion and critical theory at Duke University, join us in a conversation about the main takeaways from the G7 summit over the weekend, the proposal of a global minimum global tax rate of 15%, what impact this could have on multinational corporations, and whether we should be hopeful or skeptical about this considering how low the bar has been set for these corporations. We also talk about how many of the conversations were framed within the context of a confrontation with China, by proposing a plan to counter the Belt and Road initiative, and focusing on the issues in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Teodrose Fikremariam, cofounder of Ghion Journal, tells us about the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region in Ethiopia, including the involvement of Eritrean troops in the conflict and why they are there, claims that there is a risk of a man-made famine in Tigray and how there have been episodes of collective punishment. We also talk about how this conflict has brought a new tribalism into the forefront, how the portrayal of the Tigray authorities as victims in Western media is not completely accurate, taking into consideration that they began hostilities, and how international multilateral and regional organizations do not have the capacity or understanding of the situation to work as honest brokers in the conflict.
John Feffer, Director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, joins us to talk about the NATO summit taking place in Brussels this week, how the organization is yet again trying to redefine its mission and find its purpose, and whether they will be able maintain their membership as the justification for its existence seems to change every year. We also talk about the continued withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the establishment of permanent airbases in the region.