Sarah Menefee: First They Came for the Homeless

homeless camp on lawn of old city hall with large sign that reads First They Came for the Homeless

Berkeley homeless camp in front of the old City Hall. photo / Natalie Orenstein, Berkeleyside

Sarah Menefee is a San Francisco poet and an organizer in the homeless movement. She is a founding member of the San Francisco Union of the Homeless, Homes Not Jails, and 'First they came for the homeless,' a tent community–based organization of activist homeless leaders. She has been writing and publishing for 50 years, and active in revolutionary politics for more than 30 in the fight for social and economic justice. She is also a photographer and journalist with the People's Tribune, where she edits the homeless pages. Her published books of poetry include I'm Not Thousandfurs, The Blood About the Heart, and Human Star. She has led writing groups with homeless women, parolees, Occupy members, and college students, and has worked in hospitals, casinos, day care centers, offices, and bookstores.


Homelessness has been a feature in this country for nearly 40 years, but in the past few decades and years has leaped, affecting more and more people throughout society. People with homes and stable jobs just yesterday find themselves jobless, foreclosed on, living in a vehicle, or in the streets. Many thousands of schoolchildren and college-age students are homeless. By one calculation, 78 percent of the country lives paycheck to paycheck, and half of Americans live below, at, or near the poverty level. Mighty social changes, such as joblessness caused by automation, are throwing more and more ordinary people out of work and home and into the streets.

There has also been a homeless movement in this country. Menefee has been involved with it for more than 30 years, in such organizations as the Union of the Homeless, Homes Not Jails, and currently 'First they came for the homeless.' Today she sees a leap in the organizing that is happening, and leadership coming out of the ranks of the homeless. While demanding of government that it provide housing as a right — a practical though revolutionary demand — homeless people who were once scattered and isolated in the streets and hiding from police harassment are now gathering in self-run tent communities based on mutual protection and support, as well as providing the basic privacy and shelter of a tent. These self-organized communities, with the support of others in the wider community, have been taking their demands to the halls of government, to the courts, and to the streets.

The organization Menefee is active with as a founding member — along with homeless member Mike Zint — came out of Occupy San Francisco, which was held down by many people including the homeless, street kids, street artists, young activists, and others bringing many more — both homeless and housed — around them in a large encampment. This formed a kind of family that became politicized together, a nationwide experience in hundreds of cities and towns across the country. Homeless people were used to dealing with the police day to day – now they had numbers, solidarity with other people who wanted to 'occupy' public space as a way of demanding social change, and a cause. After the raid on the large encampment, and when the Occupy gathering on the sidewalk in front of the Federal Reserve was finally broken up – blankets and bedrolls taken nightly by the police in the cold rainy season of November 2012 — the people still holding it down, the homeless, scattered to the streets to sleep, but didn't disband. 'First they came for the homeless' was formed from that experience, with the understanding that to fight homelessness the organizers would need to have direct and homeless-led actions in a sustained way — not led by well-meaning supporters, but by the homeless themselves, the experts.

Menefee will be talking about her experience since the organization's founding about six years ago, which is mirrored around the country by similar tent-based activist communities.

We can see and experience how homeless people were being criminalized for doing what they need to survive — sleeping and other natural functions. Whether they can afford shelter, or bathrooms, or food, people need these things to stay alive; without them they die. And many unsheltered people do die in the streets of the U.S. every year of sickness and exposure. Attempts to self-medicate because of cold, isolation, and despair also take a toll. This is a national emergency and a national disgrace that most people want solved, but the powers that be seem reluctant to. Their best answer is to build a few more shelters, which are generally seen as prison-like, as well as dangerous, where family units are broken up. Homeless leaders are saying no, we need real solutions, starting with housing as a guaranteed right. Until then, do not criminalize people for doing what they must to survive, and for having a tent and gathering together for mutual support and protection in our cooperative tent communities.

Homelessness is the Achilles heel of a system that is in crisis politically and economically. If it can't guarantee the basics of decent shelter, food, safety, privacy, and healthcare to those who live under it, then the promise of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is not being kept for growing millions. And it is the right of both the homeless and all of society, especially those struggling to get by and unsure of the future of humanity, to take up the cause of homelessness as key to everyone's well-being. Organized homeless people, along with supporters who understand the importance of this struggle, are demanding that government represent all of us.

Sponsored by the Department of Development Sociology.

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