Stephan Baxter

September 11, 2013

An Open Letter to The Fullerton City Council

To the Honorable Bruce Whitaker, Mayor of Fullerton, and The Fullerton City Council Members,

The purpose of this letter is to request that Municipal code “7.105.020 – Camping unlawfully”, which I will from here on out refer to as the “no-camping ordinance”, and which was very much the topic of discussion at the last council meeting, be placed on the September 17th agenda. Considering the attention this issue is getting in the community and in the press, I believe that adding it to the agenda as soon as possible is warranted. I would greatly appreciate it if each of you would confirm receipt of this request and let me know if I can count on you to have it added. If you will not support my request, I humbly ask that you briefly state a reason for not doing so in your response to me.

Good people can disagree on policy, but good people should not prevent a discussion which may put an issue that is as divisive and as controversial as the criminalization of homelessness to bed. Fullerton is, at least in part, nationally known as the city that hired the officers who beat a homeless man to death. With the news trucks soon on their way to Orange County to cover the historic murder trial of 2 Fullerton officers, and in the process, to fill air space with nice “man on the street” stuff about how things have progressed since all of the success the reformers had a year ago, putting a positive spin on this current situation will be a little awkward. One thing is clear, this recent round of stupidity is certainly not helpful in getting Fullerton’s reputation past its darkest moment, and I suggest we put a moratorium on enforcing the no-camping violations until suitable accommodations are found for a 200 plus bed, year-round, emergency homeless shelter. For all concerned, this needs to be added to the agenda right away.

The newly-elected officials, especially those who now sit on city council, in part at least because of the political fallout of Kelly’s Thomas’ murder (I would argue that this applies to all of you, excepting the Mayor), need to go on record regarding a law that essentially makes being homeless a crime. You are in that seat because the public thought you could handle issues like this, and because they knew Bankhead, Jones, and McKinley could or would not. You owe it to those of us that voted for you to go on the record.

I am hopeful that, after an honest assessment of the political landscape during which you ran for office, at least one of you will personally come to the conclusion that you owe this opportunity to be on the city council in great part to the fate which befell Kelly Thomas. And when you have come to that conclusion, I believe that you are morally called upon to improve the lives of those with whom Kelly shared the streets. Perhaps you will then conclude, as I have already concluded for you, that you need to pay a VIG to Kelly’s memory. During your tenure in office, perhaps you will also conclude, as I have already also concluded for you, that you should pay your debt to Kelly by being a champion for the homeless, a champion for the mentally ill, and a champion for police oversight. Maybe this is your test of courage, and how you create your political legacy. We desperately need someone on the council to “own” the homeless issue. Wanting to be a champion for the dignified treatment of ALL of Fullerton’s residents is not controversial in polite society. . This could be someone’s legacy if someone cared, because I’m not hearing any acknowledgement from any of you that your political career exists, or was revitalized, because a homeless man was murdered. I would also like to point out that had Kelly survived the brutal beating on July 5th, 2011, he would now be getting cited for camping. That is NO way to pay your VIG. It’s your turn to do better than the last bunch. Let’s address the no-camping ordinance, put its enforcement on hold, and find an appropriate site for a shelter. Let’s do what your predecessors were incapable of, let’s do the right thing.

To forbid the homeless in this town from essentially sleeping will not go over well once it gets picked up on by the media. I contend that, even if our elected officials haven’t, the community of Fullerton has learned from the mistakes of the past, and is motivated not to repeat them. Individuals and little collections of self-interested pacs and/or associations may not, but collectively, Fullerton will never again look away when we learn about a grave injustice, especially one which carries with it the same dehumanizing odor that was thick in the air on the evening of July 5th, 2011, the evening that Kelly Thomas was beat to death as he cried out for mercy. If these citations were a bit of muscle-flexing by those who want to return to how things were before, and the criminalization of Fullerton’s homeless population were the subject, and this issue will establish once and for all that we are in a New Fullerton, a caring Fullerton with residents that are tuned in and take action, then so be it, we are ready! FPD’s position is indefensible and Fullerton hates bullies of any kind. Our community: the moms, the fathers, the students, the artists, the educators, musicians, bartenders, accountants, merchants, servers, nurses, small business owners and super rad yoga instructors, stood up and were counted when another homeless man was humiliated, devalued and treated without dignity, and once the message gets out that we are now citing the homeless as a class, not for what they have done, but for who we perceive them to be, the same will happen again. We all worked too hard for this to be the end result.

With this request it is my hope and my expectation that with a review of the no-camping ordinance, along with statements from some of the homeless who have been cited about the actual application of this law (which is quite different than the idealized version Chief Hughes spoke to at the last council meeting), we will demonstrate that the enforcement of this code is almost always counterproductive, always cynical, and nothing close to resembling an actual policy or solution to the “homeless problem”.

This does not mean that we should not be responsive to the needs of downtown businesses and residents. After all, our government does not suffer from a scarcity of laws which address human behavior, and which are perfectly suited to address the individual troublemakers in downtown. Be they the homeless, the weekend bar crowd, or a wayward Rotary Club member who mixed too many Xanax with her Pinot Noir, hold these individuals accountable for their actions, but do not apply presumption of guilt to all of those who don’t have a home.

These anti-homeless laws are, essentially, lazy, catch-all laws, that target the segment of the community with the least resources. In addition to all of the other flaws possessed by the no-camping ordinance, it doesn’t do a very good job of clearly identifying who, amongst the homeless, are the “bad guys”. We’re told that “the worst of the worst” are getting these tickets. I would like Chief Hughes to explain to us how a law which in order for it to apply, must find someone sleeping in public, is helpful in isolating the good guys from the bad (exception to all with a swastika on the forehead). Even I look like angel when I’m sleeping. And that statement is pure B.S .because we already personally know some who have been ticketed and they are good people

I appreciate the f/up that Council Member Jan Flory had at the last council meeting. The responses from Dan Hughes were the ideal, not the practice, but more importantly it put the Chief on record. But given the silence at the last meeting on this topic by all but Ms. Flory, it appears that the expectations of the public, a public that Voted for reform by a 3/2 margin may not be clear to all of you, because I can’t find anyone, anywhere, of any party, who could have imagined that ticketing people for the condition of homelessness would be how our city officials, elected and appointed (some of whom were riding the “Justice For Kelly” wave pretty hard, and were in fact hyper-critical of the police during last year’s recall election), would handle this situation. You are looking away instead of intervening on another dehumanizing policy at the hands of our police.

When I was celebrating the successful recall of Bankhead, Jones and McKinley (taking full advantage of our generous host’s open bar), I had no idea that one year later I would be arguing this hard to get the new council to understand why criminalizing all homeless people in Fullerton is not what we had in mind when we voted for change reform. I also would not have thought that three of you would have voted down a homeless shelter. To increase the enforcement of a 1992 no camping citation (by approx. 2000%) only weeks before the murder trial of another homeless person, and to do so in a community which only two months ago said no to a shelter, is to me obnoxiously unfathomable.

Doing the right thing doesn’t need to be difficult, it really doesn’t. Some things, the things that test our ethics, can smell bad from a mile away. It shouldn’t take a ton of arguing and hurt feeling to convince others that those things need to be gone. Enforcing a municipal code on people that have no choice but to be in violation of that code does not stand up any cursory application of “fairness”. Despite pressure from powerful business interests in this town, and the potential for blowback from some who contributed to your campaigns, if the undeniable on fairness of this issue does not compel you to want to stop its application, one should ask of you what it will take before you are willing to cross the wishes of the Fullerton Chamber of Commerce.

This is not a difficult one guys. Until recently (OC Register 3/13, by Lou Ponsi), the chief of police himself agreed with what I am proposing.

Please respond by letting me know if you support putting this issue on the agenda.

We hope this can be resolved swiftly and fairly, through traditional channels.

More information can be found here:

With Respect and friendship,

Stephan Baxter

Fullerton CA