Merced homeless advocates decry plans for camp closures

Encampments scheduled to be closed Oct. 13.

October 5, 2010 

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY BEA AHBECK Brian Perez, who lives at tent city, protests the scheduled evictions of the homeless from Black Rascal homeless camp alongside other homeless and homeless advocates outside Merced Civic Center in Merced, Calif. Monday, Oct. 4, 2010. To right Monica Villa, also a Rascal Creek resident.

BEA AHBECK — Merced Sun-Star

Not many students get graded for protesting.

But, for students from two writing classes at UC Merced, that was indeed the case Monday afternoon.

The students were among more than 30 people, including homeless advocates and Mercedians, who stood outside protesting at the civic center Monday.

Some carried signs that read "Where am I going to live now?" or wore tags that said "Where am I supposed to live?" Others sat in chairs on the sidewalk and one man even stood outside a tent with a sign that read "This is my condo."

All were protesting against the Oct. 13 closure date of the homeless encampments, which had been previously pushed back because of a county holiday.

Even though the city has already decided on the closure date, the daunting homeless issue spurred some students at UC Merced to petition and protest the date.

UC Merced students collected more than 1,200 signatures from fellow students and Mercedians in five days to try to delay the closure date.

Jesse (who declined to give his last name), a former homeless man who used to live in the Black Rascal Creek encampment, said he was at the protest because he feels bad for the homeless people. He said, "they need shelter like everybody else."

A few feet away, Wayne Swiggart said the homeless should be treated like people and not animals.

"The wife and I have been fixing meals once a week since March for the Black Rascal Creek camp," he said, as he was standing with his wife, Liz. "They're a bunch of good people with a bad situation. We've gotten to know them really well."

Christopher Ramirez, a UC Merced lecturer in the writing program, had his students pick and choose community projects on various issues. Two groups in his writing classes picked the issue for their semester-long projects.

"A classroom should exist without walls and the best way for students to immerse themselves in critical thinking -- at one level -- it's about learning from texts but what better way to create a live rhetoric and take that to the streets and see the texts come to life depending on what issues they take on?" he asked.

In a packed Monday City Council meeting -- with more police enforcement than usual -- the audience rousingly clapped after each citizen -- a student, Mercedian, or homeless person -- took the podium to speak out against the closure date.

Jennie Trinidad, a chemical science sophomore, and a member of the handful of people in charge of the petition, stressed the amount of signatures in five days was significant, adding the UC Merced student community was a driving, voting force.

Mayor Bill Spriggs explained that the only way that could be reconsidered is if one of the council members who voted in the majority when the item was considered would make a motion to reconsider. The four council members who had voted in the majority were Josh Pedrozo, Michele Gabriault-Acosta, Spriggs and Noah Lor.

None reconsidered at the meeting Monday night.

Ramirez said this issue has too many people involved and no leadership and "none of this energy is being focused into a solution." For example, he said one of the solutions was a six- to eight-month period where council members could meet with HomeBase, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, public policy law firm that specializes in homelessness.

"There is no plan, no solution," Ramirez said. "There is a lot of irony, we have a lot of compassion and yet it's unfortunate for those four members on City Council who voted no."

Beginning in early August, the city began posting and distributing material and giving everybody notice, allowing the homeless to contact relatives and find alternative housing. Last month, the city began posting notices warning of the camp closures.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsun-star.com.

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