Tuesday, July 6, 2010
A new image has been created in response to the "Please Don't Feed Our Bums" stickers currently being sold at The Black in Ocean Beach. We'll talk to the organization that created the "Together We End Homelessness" sticker, and discuss the latest on the debate taking place in OB.
To view an image of the new "Together We End Homelessness" sticker, click here.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The sticker put out by the store, The Black, in Ocean Beach has gotten a lot of attention over the past weeks. It resembles a warning you might see in a national park against bears, and it says
‘Please Don't Feed Our Bums.’ There's been a lot of talk and controversy in Ocean Beach and around San Diego about the sticker. There's an effort tonight to bring the OB community together at a forum on homelessness. I’d like to welcome my guests who can tell us more about the community meeting and bring us up to date on the controversy. Frank Gormlie is editor, publisher and a blogger for the OB Rag. Frank is also a local activist and attorney in San Diego. Frank, good morning.
FRANK GORMLIE (Editor/Publisher, OB Rag): Good morning to you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Peter Callstrom is executive director of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness. And, Peter, good morning.
PETER CALLSTROM (Executive Director, Regional Task Force on Homelessness): Good morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Peter, as part of what’s been going on since we talked last month, your organization decided to create a sticker in response to the ‘Please Don’t Feed Our Bums’ sticker. It’s currently – That’s currently being sold at The Black. Why did you feel the need to come out with this competing sticker?
CALLSTROM: Well, it was a brainstorm of one of our staff members who felt that, you know, there needed to be another voice in this. And the sticker that was put out by The Black is, unfortunately, a very negative statement that labels people who are homeless and likens them to animals, as you referred to in the comparison with the bear sticker. And, you know, OB is a wonderful community, very tolerant and open-minded and there’s a lot of people who are focused on what can we do to alleviate this problem that we have versus labeling and name calling and derisive comments. And, you know, by putting out this alternative sticker, we’re just making a positive statement that Ocean Beach is a community that is tolerant, that is caring, that is empathic, and together we end homelessness.
CAVANAUGH: And I just want to remind our listeners, you can join the conversation. Our number here is 1-888-895-5727. Peter, can you describe what your sticker looks like?
CALLSTROM: Yeah, it shares the same shape but that’s the only thing it shares. The message is completely different. And it says, ‘Welcome to OB’ and then around the rim of the central image, we have the words ‘generosity, empathy, tolerance’ and ‘caring.’ The image in the middle is one person depicted as a person who’s homeless and another person who’s not and they’re shaking hands or just having a greeting and at the bottom it says ‘Together We End Homelessness.” Now, again, I want to distinguish the issue that’s gone on in Ocean Beach because I think there’s distinct issues here in that the aggressive panhandling that’s gone on where people have been threatened is certainly unacceptable, and any kind of panhandling, really, we don’t condone. But when we have a broad-brush statement that people who are homeless are bums does nothing to advance the solutions that we’re all working towards.
CAVANAUGH: I want to let everybody know that they can see the competing sticker, the sticker that was made up by the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, on our website, KPBS.org. Frank Gormlie, a community forum, as I say, will take place tonight at the Sacred Heart Church in Ocean Beach. What is the motivation behind this forum?
GORMLIE: The forum? There’s been a coalition of churches, local churches in Ocean Beach and Point Loma, who’ve stepped forward. Now they’re already feeding homeless people every other Tuesday night, and a few of the churches do it on their own. And I think it’s a response, it’s a great response, to this whole controversy and this whole division in our community over – or over the message that we feel is a hate message and insensitivity projected by The Black’s sticker that they’re selling on tee shirts and hats and now, you know, on the stickers themselves. So we think this new image is wonderful. We’ve worked with Peter and his organization on adjusting the image that’s…
GORMLIE: …somewhat – The forum tonight will be at the Ocean Beach Sacred Heart Parish at 4776 Saratoga. It’s eight o’clock. The churches are running it. They’re facilitating it. They’re organizing it. And they have a few rules that they’re going to ask people to abide by as – like being civil and not swearing, only speaking the truth, signing in, leaving an e-mail address, that kind of stuff. And they’re also asking no – the media can observe but no recording devices be allowed during the actual meeting.
CAVANAUGH: And why is that?
GORMLIE: Well, I think the churches feel that without the cameras going and without any recording devices, people can speak their mind without fear of retribution or anything and without grandstanding. People might think with the camera going on they can grandstand. So, yeah, and we – we respect that and we agree with it. You know, we’re not running it. We’re not facilitating it. They are.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call. We have a caller, Stephen, on the line from San Diego. Good morning, Stephen. Welcome to These Days.
STEPHEN (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Thanks, Maureen. Yeah, I just wanted to say I think there’s been too much focus on the sticker itself. OB’s always been – always had a sense of humor like the Dog Beach symbol of the dog licking you know where. And I’ve been in San Diego – I’m a native San Diegan and I’ve seen, over the years, that OB is just really getting overgrown with younger homeless people, which I think are just doing it on purpose. I’ve – I don’t go down there anymore because they’re always panhandling and hanging out and just covering up the boardwalk and it’s just gotten really annoying going down there. And, really, I mean, it’s not hurting anyone. I mean, it’s just a sticker.
CAVANAUGH: Right, Patrick (sic), thank you for the call. And Peter, you made that distinction earlier, in the idea that this, the original sticker from The Black is maybe not aimed at offending the homeless so much as it’s aimed at a type of younger, aggressive, homeless person who’ve been accused of sleeping and urinating near businesses in the area. Is that the kind of issue also that’s going to be addressed tonight, do you think, at this forum?
CALLSTROM: I sure think so because I think that’s probably the genesis of the original sticker. And just to the point he made about a sense of humor, I agree with a sense of humor but, again, when we’re labeling people with very pejorative terms, again, it does no good. And that’s beyond a sense of humor and, yeah, we all want to get beyond stickers but, you know, we did an alternative because we don’t want Ocean Beach just to be labeled as this place that’s intolerant of people who are homeless and especially to use terrible terminology. But, again, aggressive panhandling where it becomes threatening becomes a criminal act, and so we really need to distinguish that from people who are in homelessness for a variety of reasons from mental illness or addiction to purely economic. There’s a lot of reasons for why people end up homeless. And we, as neighbors and community members, if we work together there are ways to alleviate this and, hopefully, at some point we can eradicate. That would be the long term goal that we share as a country because it’s completely unacceptable to have somewhere in the neighborhood of three-quarters of a million people across the country who are homeless on any given day.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Peter, you’re…
GORMLIE: Well, Maureen, I…
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, go ahead. I’m sorry, go ahead, Frank.
GORMLIE: Well, Maureen, I agree somewhat with the caller that there’s a lot of focus on the sticker and, really, the sticker as a substitute for the real issue, and the real issue is homelessness and the homeless, and what we can do about it as a country, as a community, as a nation like Peter was just saying.
CAVANAUGH: And I was just going to ask you, Peter, being something of an expert on homelessness in San Diego, what can be done about if there are, indeed, a more aggressive younger homeless population in Ocean Beach that’s different from the, if one can say, the regular homeless people that might hang out in the area. What can be done to alleviate that kind of a problem?
CALLSTROM: Well, one thing I would recommend is that people do call 911 or the Homeless Outreach Team when people are being accosted or threatened or somebody is doing something completely inappropriate or harming. The police department is very response and they’re there with a physical presence a lot of the time. So, you know, they work hand in hand with the community in order to address that kind of issue, which is, again, a criminal act. As far as trying to alleviate and solve homelessness, it really does take a broad-based community effort and we are fortunate in San Diego County to have, you know, 50-plus different organizations, great nonprofits like Father Joe’s Villages, the Rescue Mission, Alpha Project, Interfaith Community Services up north, and many more across the county who are extremely dedicated and working very hard to help people who are in a very difficult situation in their life, to help them out of that and to restore them to a life of dignity. So it’s a full scale effort that it takes in order to alleviate this problem but one issue that, you know, challenges us all is, as community members, is our very challenged economy. When we have more and more people with no work or no prospect of work and losing their benefits, they need help. And if we can steer them to the wonderful providers we have in the community, they are able to be that bridge or safety net to help people through these difficult times so that they can get back on their feet. There’s no easy answers, there’s no silver bullet. It takes a lot of work and a lot of people working together to address this. I’m also very heartened because, you know, the city council has taken up this issue. We have the Land Use and Housing…
CALLSTROM: …subcommittee that’s going to be meeting later this month. It’s going to be addressing the issue with the World Trade Center renovation that would be another form of shelter and one-stop shop in the downtown district but that’s just in that region. It’s – This is a countywide issue. This is our entire San Diego region that needs to embrace this and that means the county supervisors as well. And…
CALLSTROM: …having solutions across the county that work to address this. There’s also another really interesting initiative going on that Toni Atkins, the former city council member and candidate for Assembly, is working on and this is the One Hundred Thousand Homes initiative that they are doing in partnership with an organization called Common Ground and that’s commonground.org. And they have made great progress in terms of alleviating chronic homelessness. They…
CALLSTROM: …they’ve done great, great work and they’re coming to town and partnering with us.
GORMLIE: And, Maureen, I think…
GORMLIE: …you know, also you can tell your readers that they can see the new graphic of the new sticker on our blog, obrag.org.
CAVANAUGH: Terrific, now one thing…
GORMLIE: And also, you know what Peter’s talking about is this sense of social responsibility and that’s what’s missing in a lot of the messages that we get down in Ocean Beach around the sticker. People say, well, if you love the homeless so much, why don’t you take them home. And that’s not the point. Why should those who are raising the issue of homelessness be ordered or be forced or be told to personally deal with the homeless issue? That – It’s a level of social responsibility that Peter’s been involved in. I’m not a homeless advocate. The media’s sort of painted me as a homeless advocate.
GORMLIE: I’m a human rights activist. I’m a grassroots person involved in the grassroots politics of the community. I’m a blogger and I’m a lawyer but, you know, we stuck up on this whole issue on a human rights level.
GORMLIE: And I think…
CALLSTROM: And as you termed it, Frank, it’s, you know, on the border of hate speech and we have to get away from this kind of terminology. And The Black is profiting from this sticker and that’s unfortunate.
GORMLIE: That’s right.
CALLSTROM: That money should go back into the Ocean Beach community. And one thing we’re doing with the sticker, whatever money is raised from the alternative positive sticker, all of that money, we’re putting back into the Ocean Beach community.
GORMLIE: That’s great. We’ve asked The Black, since they’ve made thousands on the dehumanizing sticker, to give those churches or those organizations some of that money who, you know, give the money to those organizations and groups that are helping the homeless.
CAVANAUGH: Right, Frank…
GORMLIE: But, you know, we’ve asked The Black to stop selling the merchandise. It’s not just the sticker itself. They’ve also put the image on hats, on tee shirts. We have a petition going. We have an online petition. We also have a paper petition. We have over 200 signatures of people asking, you know, The Black to stop this message.
CAVANAUGH: Frank, let me ask you a question. We had a caller who said that, you know, OB has a great sense of humor…
CAVANAUGH: …the sticker is part of that sense of humor. There was an area, there was a time recently where there was no sense of humor to be found, and that was at a rally you organized in front of The Black two weeks ago. Give us an update on what happened there and how the homeless discussion in Ocean Beach has evolved since then.
GORMLIE: Okay, it wasn’t really a rally, Maureen, it was a – We were picketing The Black and we were asking people not to shop there, you know, because of the sticker and the other merchandise. We have petitions there. There was about 20 of us standing there. There was some homeless people there and because it was publicized, some Black supporters or people who like the original sticker came out and were hurling insults at us. Some of it got personal, and we saw a lot of heat and a lot of vileness being thrown at us. You know, it was really amazing and it was so shocking that there’s actually been a backlash. We’ve experienced a backlash against the hate that was thrown at us—thrown at us—people who were sitting on the fence now have come forward and said, hey, I was sitting on the fence but I saw the hatred that was, you know, being shown you guys and now I understand what you’re, you know, what you’re saying and what you’re doing. If there’s so much hate thrown at you guys, I could see where the hate’s coming from and where it’s going. It’s going, you know, into being channeled against the homeless.
GORMLIE: You know, and we do have the – I think we’ve all talked about this recent report that’s come out and the report says – about homelessness in San Diego County, and it says…
GORMLIE: …it’s been a increase of 8% but there’s been an increase on the streets of 12 to 13%.
CALLSTROM: That’s right.
GORMLIE: Those are pretty high numbers.
CAVANAUGH: Peter, let me ask you. Why do you think this issue has generated so much passion from people on both sides? Do you think that there’s an underlying issue here that’s not being addressed?
CALLSTROM: Well, it’s a great question. I think it has garnered so much attention because it’s such inflammatory, derisive language and it’s a terribly offensive sticker. And when people put something like that out, it gets attention and, well, let’s turn this attention into a positive message and solutions. And I’m really – I’m impressed that the Ocean Beach community is pulling together to have this forum that should be a constructive dialogue and one – once people can put aside the epithets and argumentative nature that can come from this…
CALLSTROM: …maybe we can come to some solutions. And we have to get past all of that. I was at The Black demonstration…
GORMLIE: Yes, you were.
CALLSTROM: …boycott as well and speaking of sense of humor, if you saw some of the placards, you’d know that sense of humor is alive and well in Ocean Beach.
CALLSTROM: And I was also impressed, too, on one little anecdote that I observed and that was where Frank and another gentleman in Ocean Beach were having a pretty lively exchange and, you know, maybe about 15, 20 minutes later, they’re shaking hands and giving each other a hug because in the end they remember, you know, they’re still neighbors and they may disagree on this issue but, you know, they were able to move past that and I was very impressed by that.
CAVANAUGH: So what do you expect to come from, let me ask you, Frank, first, this forum tonight? What are the topics that you expect will be addressed, and do you think any solutions are going to be found?
GORMLIE: Well, you’re asking if one little community of 15,000 people can come up with a solution to homelessness is, you know, asking a lot. I hope. I will hope that the issues both on the side of the merchants and the residents who are complaining about the aggressive panhandling, about the use of the doorways of merchants as bathrooms, to come forward. I also expect, and hope, that there will be some homeless people there. And last time there was a community meeting about homelessness, you know what their number one complaint was? It was the lack of public restrooms.
CAVANAUGH: Right, right.
GORMLIE: What is the number one complaint of the merchants? The lack of restaurants – restrooms for the homeless. Now OB does have a few public restrooms and we’re having one built soon, another one, a new one, but there just really is inadequate numbers of public restrooms around either for tourists or residents or for the homeless.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a…
GORMLIE: So I think that’s one of the issues.
GORMLIE: There’s going to be residents coming forward with their – with tales about being held up by aggressive panhandling. There’s going to be, hopefully, people talking about how they help the homeless and about how if you treat them good or treat them nicely, they’ll treat you nicely. And, you know, hopefully there’ll be homeless saying if you treat the cops nicely, the cops will treat the homeless nicely. So, hopefully, there’ll be an airing of all the issues and I think this is just one in a series of forums that the churches are planning.
CAVANAUGH: And – and…
GORMLIE: So tonight we’re hoping that these issues can be aired and I don’t – I really don’t think there’s going to be any solutions coming. I mean, there’s no magic – Like Peter said, there’s no magic bullet for this huge national problem.
CAVANAUGH: Right, but…
GORMLIE: I think we need….
CAVANAUGH: …Peter, I’m wondering, do you think that, indeed, that law enforcement has to get more involved in this issue, especially it seems that people are really frustrated, as I keep saying, with the younger homeless in the area who are – seem to be causing a lot of problems.
CALLSTROM: How much more they need to be involved, I’m not sure. I know that they’re very present. They were there at The Black during the demonstration and, you know, they’re very committed to doing whatever needs to be done down there. I’ve spoken with their outreach team and their Western Division people and they recognize the problem. They’ve even termed, you know, these – this new aggressive group as really a traveling bunch that may be passing through the area but that still doesn’t solve the problem. If they pass on to the next community and do the same thing, it’s still a criminal issue. But to the issue of homelessness, whatever we can do as a community is really paramount because the police can only do so much. They’re there to respond when there’s emergencies or incidents.
GORMLIE: And we have to add that in terms of governmental services for the homeless in Ocean Beach, we only have the police department and the poor cops…
GORMLIE: …are being, you know, forced to deal with problems that society as a whole, this city and this country as a whole, need to deal with.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I think that the two of you have given us a really good idea of what the forum is going to be like tonight and I wish you both luck with that. Frank Gormlie is editor/publisher/blogger for the OB Rag. Thank you, Frank.
GORMLIE: Thank you, Maureen. Thank you…
CAVANAUGH: Peter Callstrom is executive director of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness. Thanks, Peter.
CALLSTROM: Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: There will be a community forum tonight on the topic of homelessness in Ocean Beach. That’s at 8:00 p.m. at the Sacred Heart Church of Ocean Beach. If you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. You’ve been listening to These Days, and stay with us for hour two coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.