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A letter to the city of San Luis Obispo, CA police department and local newspaper

To those who protect and serve,

I am writing because I am angry about the injustice I have witnessed towards our city’s homeless primarily in Mitchell Park. I do not intend for this letter to be an attack against people or their respective jobs, but the injustice that is deeply rooted in our social systems. I recognize that the police officers of San Luis Obispo are simply doing their job and I want to extend my gratitude to them. I also recognize that I don’t see or hear of everything that goes on, for I know only what my eyes show me and my heart tells me. Yet, I must speak out against what I see.

One of the things I love most about Mitchell Park is the sense of community there. I find joy in the mother strolling through the park with her baby and in the father who is teaching his little boy how to throw a baseball, but more than anything I find the most joy in those who are ‘homeless.’ Many afternoons have I been filled with joy in hearing their laughter and listening to their tunes. NEVER have I felt threatened by their presence. Over the last two weeks, I have witnessed several occasions where police officers have approached these homeless people and have questioned them, searched them, handcuffed them and placed them in the back of their police cars. These homeless people at the park are citizens just like you and me, however they seem to be denied the simple pleasure of sitting in one of our city’s beautiful parks. Yesterday, I saw a man sit down at a picnic table and within minutes, a police officer confronted him. This man had no alcohol nor was he smoking anything, he carried with him a garbage bag and appeared to be homeless. It appeared to me that he was confronted simply because of his appearance. This stigmatization against the homeless here has taken nearly all of them out of the park. Placing our city’s poor behind bars and essentially making them invisible is not solving the problem of homelessness, it is only hiding it and robbing these people of their rights and their dignity. This problem cannot be ignored.

To me it seems that as a society we have allowed the hardships of our time to fill us with fear. This fear seems to place lenses over our eyes and causes us to see people as threats and diseases rather than human beings. When we allow fear rather than love to govern us, it becomes easy to forget that these people here in the park are suffering as many of them are lacking the basic needs that most of us take for granted. We need to see each other through eyes of compassion, compassion that goes beyond trying to institutionalize the homeless and worries more about their present needs. Perhaps we could bring an extra lunch on our picnics or motivate the city to allow us to plant a community garden for them in the park. However, it can be even simpler than that and it must start with our thinking, for our thoughts govern our lives.

We need to start thinking less about ourselves individually and more about our communities collectively. Many people are struggling right now and life would be easier if we struggled together for we each have different gifts and blessings that we could contribute to the greater good of our nation. Nannette Miranda from ABC7 News reports that 1 in 10 people have lost their jobs this month. In December, unemployment was at 8.7% and in January alone, it jumped to 10.1%. Nearly 2 million people in California are unemployed and the threat of foreclosure and thus homelessness is becoming more of a reality to many. The Economic Opportunity Commission in San Luis Obispo reports that between 2500 and 4000 people in San Luis County will be looking for a place to sleep tonight. In a time where so many are struggling, we must be able to look to one another for help. Most likely, the state of our economy will continue to get worse before it gets better. Let’s not make the mistake as a community to rob the homeless of their dignity for simply sitting in the park and let’s do what we can as individuals and as a community to take care of the basic needs of these people on the streets. Injustice to these people is injustice to us all.

This letter was given to the San Luis Obispo Police Department, the Parks and Recreation Department, the Chief of Police, the Community Development Department, and the city’s mayor.

Thank you for your time, my hope is that my words may bring forth reform and justice,

A concerned citizen

— Katie Pagenstecher (a former intern)

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Filed under Food for thought, Wrestling with issues of perspective