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As I sit here in my tent with my boyfriend, listening to some Mississippi Delta Blues, I am feeling grateful because I am on private property, which means I don’t have to get up and break down my tent by 5:30 a.m. I don’t have to haul my belongings away with me and drag them around all day to avoid getting arrested.
I have been arrested three times since becoming homeless, and the charges are all variations on the same theme: sleeping on the sidewalk and having my belongings with me. Twice, police have confiscated my stuff and failed to give all of it back — despite a rule that requires the city to store property picked up during arrests.
The last time I was arrested, when I went to pick up my belongings at the station on Broadway, they tried to argue they’d only taken one bicycle, that one being mine, and I had to convince them that they had my boyfriend’s bike, too. The bins they brought back were missing two heavy-duty boat chains, art supplies, clean clothes and all our blankets. Every single one.
My boyfriend was missing the antique grinder I’d given him, all his jackets — some of them leather and all very nice — as well as his good Dr. Marten boots. I was also missing a large cart that I had bought to haul around my dog Bambi. There was more. A lot more.
Maybe those items are still sitting at the police station. Or maybe they’re sitting in a new home, having been auctioned off to strangers. All I know is that I watched the police go through each item meticulously when I was arrested, and then certain items were gone when I was released.
My boyfriend and I briefly considered going back to the police department to make a complaint, but I was exhausted, and I felt like it would not make any difference. I had signed the release paperwork confirming the number of bins, not the individual contents.
Besides, the whole experience reminded us of sweeps we’d previously been involved in, where the city had taken everything we owned.
After the first time, my boyfriend’s mom bought us a tent, blankets and two tarps. The second time we weren’t so lucky: my boyfriend had to make a house out of cardboard. It was freezing cold, and we could not sleep at all. The only thing I could do was cry.
When cops pass by these days I am terrified. If they stop and talk to me I could end up being arrested just like that. All because I’m homeless. Oftentimes the charges are for things we cannot avoid.
To many of us homeless folk, it seems like we’re living in a police state. You see, the rules are different for those who happen to be housed.
I have learned to adapt. If I am sitting down where there are no chairs or benches, I get up quickly and walk away.
If I allow police to make contact, they will run my name to see if I have a warrant and ask me a series of questions designed to give them the info they need to write me a citation. I have had this happen four times since I moved onto private property. And I can tell they just hate the fact that I have a tent I don’t have to take down, and I can hang out and sleep whenever I want.
I am 52 years old. When I became homeless I didn’t have a criminal record. But I do now.
I have a criminal record for the crime of sleeping past 5:30 a.m. on the sidewalk.
I have a criminal record for the crime of having too much stuff with me on the sidewalk.
I have a criminal record because I put a tent on the sidewalk.
I have a criminal record because I build a shelter out of tarps, clips, and my belongings.
The above crimes are different variations of a law that was originally written to prevent people from piling their garbage in public.
The truth is, the people in charge don’t really have our best interests at heart. How is a 52-year-old woman supposed to get a job when she has a criminal record and all her good clean clothes have been stolen by the city?
When I was in grade school I was reminded in song that “this land was made for you and me.” Would somebody please define “you and me?” Cause it seems like there was no land made for me. And apparently, along with having no land, I have no right to my own belongings.
Ginger Stamper, a poet, writer and artist, has been a San Diego resident since 2004 and homeless since 2014. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.