This past Wednesday, I went to testify for the right to rest bill at Colorado State Legislature – this is a bill which would enable people to sleep in their cars without being rousted or ticketed or arrested by the police, to feed people in public (some churches still do this though it is outlawed), and to cover themselves with a coat or a sleeping bag in winter. It is the fourth time the bill has been proposed. It is so far voted down each time – the interests of storeowners playing a central role. But there is a continuing effort from below, on behalf of humanity, and it was inspiring to be there. The two sponsors – Joe Salazar, a candidate for State Attorney General this November, and Jovan Melton spoke with great power, and there were approximately 60 people, testifying for 3 minutes each, with the representatives then asking questions. I testified along with Michael Neil, a brilliant Ph.D. who has spina bifida – comes to this and many other public matters in a wheelchair – and from whom I learned that 40% of people without homes are also disabled, and Paul Kemp, another brilliant Ph.D. candidate at our school who lived in his car for the past 3 years to save money. A panel spoke from the Law School about their long report on Too High A Price: What Criminalizing Homelessness Costs Colorado. Mamie Parks, a black vet who was then homeless afterwards, and is now a fine second year law student, told them more. Professor Nantiya Ruan, one of the authors (there were 12), was also terrific.
And a panel of 3 women spoke from University of Colorado at Denver, where they reported 7-14% of students are homeless.
Here was my testimony:
I am a Distinguished University Professor – a university wide appointment for distinction in research – of democratic theory and practice at the University of Denver. I have also recently taught a course a year at Metro. An awful new phenomenon has emerged on campus. One of my best Ph.D. students, Paul Kemp, who will speak to you, lived in his car to avoid crushing student debt. At Metro in political science as of 5 years ago, the department secretary would quietly collect food to give to the roughly 10% of majors who slept in their cars. The greatest thing about being a teacher is to connect with the people who are our future. Is this the future that our students deserve?
I used to begin classes at Metro by saying I was happy to be speaking to the democracy. Often, many work two or three jobs, sublet an apartment, scrape by. Many find themselves, at times, needing to stay in cars. What does it say about us as a state or community, that we outlaw sleeping in your car?
It is hard to function if you have to shower at the gym, dress hastily, use a car mirror, emerge even more sleepy or unkempt than others. And that is without being hassled – waked up – and forced to move by the police. Is that something we want to mandate by a mistaken law?
To preserve storeowner’s business environments- a real concern – current law mistakenly forbids people to feed the hungry in public. Would Denver have arrested Jesus for the loaves and fishes?
Many people are on the streets only part of the year. Attempts to count people who are homeless miss people who are hiding out of the way.. Nationwide estimates are near a million people a year unhoused. And there are probably many more.
25% are women with small children. Many were abused. Out of stereotypes toward our fellow citizens, should you – and we, their fellow citizens – look away?
For these are – each one – citizens of the United States. One remains a citizen even if poor. And if you have a big medical bill , should your funds be exhausted? Should you be pushed out on the street?
If you are hit by a spouse or have a large debt to go to college, should you be silenced and pushed out on the street?
And should you then be arrested for sleeping in a car or covering yourself or your child on a winter night?
“There but for the grace of god go I”
Look in the faces of those who are speaking to you today. They are no different from the people who are our students or your constituents, and perhaps even our children, with some bad luck. Like Jesus and Gandhi, every spiritual tradition knows this. And no religion does well all the time. It takes the willingness to correct ourselves when we are mistaken…
But as Jews, too, sometimes remember: we should be kind to strangers, because we too were strangers in Egypt. The right to rest is a human right, a right of our fellow citizens. Joe Salazar and Jovan Melton have urged you passionately to vote for the right to rest. Please: stand up for your fellow citizens and pass this bill.