Friday, April 15, 2011

Lack of squatters' rights displaces 50

Sad story in Vallejo. In a classic sign of the times, the defunct Cadillac dealership, home to some 50 illicit squatters, burned itself to teardown status on Thursday.

The SF Chron gets half credit for its headline: "50 Vallejo squatters displaced as building burns." At least they had a little sympathy for the residents. But they missed the point. They quoted a fire dept. spokesman as blaming "homeless people" for cannibalizing the building's interior, as though all "homeless people" thought and acted the same:
"Vallejo fire spokesman Bill Tweedy said he believes homeless people were sawing metal beams to sell for scrap.

In fact, Tweedy said, the illicit denizens of the abandoned dealership had removed so many of the support beams that firefighters could not enter to douse the flames out of fear that the roof would collapse."
A note that rings truer appears farther down, in a quote from one of several women who are identified as former residents:
""We had a little community here," said Velvet Farnsworth, 48. "We kept it clean. We took care of it. It was great until the scrappers came.""
The key is, "...until the scrappers came." Knowing a little about the ways homeless middle-aged women looked out for each other in San Francisco's now-destroyed community of waterfront RV dwellers, I think I can guess the rest.

The following is only guesswork, based on the patterns of another community in another town several years back -- principally the experiences of San Franciscans who are now either housed or dead. It shouldn't be viewed as fact. Anyone who actually knew the Vallejo dealership community, please correct me if I'm wrong. But here's my guess for what it's worth:

I'm gonna guess that, at the start, a group of basically self-respecting people began sticking together for safety. Some were physically vulnerable; some were presumed so due to female gender. They lived mainly on disability benefits, and scavenging, and occasional unofficial business such as car repair or sidewalk sales. They found the Cadillac building and, with their cats and dogs and luggage, they converted it to a home. There would have been some disputes, some quiet drug use, the occasional drunken outburst or dog bite -- but relatively speaking, your basic mutual respect. Then "the scrappers came" -- that is, a new crowd moved in on the village. I could be wrong, but I'm going to imagine the newcomers as hard-eyed meth-addicted metal thieves, used to cannibalizing foreclosed Victorians for copper pipe, who didn't clean up their garbage and did antisocial stuff like burning the insulation off wire by torching it with gasoline in the middle of the sidewalk. In the San Francisco RV community, this is when the decent neighbors would have seen trouble brewing, packed up their vehicles (paying local amateur mechanics to help start old engines if necessary) and moved to parking places on another street -- because soon enough a property owner would be calling the cops to come and kick out or tow everyone, good neighbors and bad, all classified together as "you people".... But in the dealership building, there was nowhere to retreat to. So the decent residents hunkered down and endured. Eventually, as the Chronicle reports, "The fire started when sparks from a saw or grinder ignited trash in a garbage can and quickly spread."

I'm gonna guess that Ms. Farnsworth tried to tell the reporter the scrappers were the problem, not the ordinary longer-term residents -- not "homeless people" generically. But the Chronicle, editorially, isn't all that interested in viewing homeless people as individuals who might be as different from each other as any housed group of neighbors, or who might have rights to assert against one another or against property owners. The Chron is interested in viewing "the homeless" as an undifferentiated menace.

So they missed the lesson of this completely avoidable fire: it's that, if the decent long-term residents of the dealership had had some level of squatters' rights, they would have benefited from the equal protection of the laws. They would have been able to invoke their rights against the metal monsters. They could have preserved their community, and the fire never would have happened.

Or maybe this all happened otherwise. So tell me what did happen, then.

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