Sanctuary Village was born on Monday, October 20, 2014 in Rochester’s Washington Square Park.
Responding to a housing emergency that leaders of Rochester and Monroe County were unwilling to address with any sense of urgency, Sanctuary Village was established to meet the practical shelter needs of 50 or more homeless men and women, and to symbolize the universal human right to housing, respectful treatment, and access to professional mental health services.
It is important to know the history of Sanctuary Village because it began as a peaceful encampment inside a public space. It is trying to follow the long and distinguished legacy of American civil disobedience dating back to the occupiers of the Boston Tea Party (no person was injured in that action) to the lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement. Putting one’s body where it doesn’t belong in order to demonstrate that public spaces are worth belonging to, is a bedrock component of our civil democracy. Criminalizing homelessness is a threat to democracy because it assumes that there are public spaces that cannot be occupied by certain citizens based solely on economic and social circumstances.
Today, the homeless are persecuted for merely existing. If they fall asleep outside they can be arrested. If they do not shower on a regular basis they can be apprehended for indecency. And if they stay in one spot for too long they will be threatened with loitering. This is not full citizenship under the Constitution. Every person in our society should be viewed as a contributing member to the polis, and no individual should be treated as disposable.
After a serious showdown on Tuesday night (October 21) with the Rochester Police Department and its’ current director Mayor Lovely Warren, Sanctuary Village was uprooted from Washington Square Park and allowed to move one block away to its new home on South Avenue, which is directly underneath the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas Bridge. It is only fitting that a camp of people starving for dignity should find themselves housed beneath the steel roof of a monument built to celebrate the lives of two great souls dedicated to this struggle.
In the spirit of Douglas and Anthony, Sanctuary Village does not consist of individuals or organizations. It is a self-sustaining community founded on the highest ideals of social democratic participation and responsible self-governance. There are no insiders and outsiders in Sanctuary Village. People come and go, but everyone is welcome to be part of the community when they decide to stay.
There are no rules or regulations written down for people to memorize and regurgitate at the expense of others. The goal is to create a climate that empowers every member of Sanctuary Village to know the rules in their heart and to follow them because they will help the whole community prosper.
Consequently, there are no rulers or leaders in Sanctuary Village. Every person is required to be responsible for their own actions and the actions of their neighbors. There is no point in saying: “can I do this” or “can I do that” because everyone is expected to take care of themselves. No one is treated as a child. Since the donations were given to the entire community to use without specification, there is not one single individual who can say what should be handed out and what should be hidden. There are no handouts in Sanctuary Village.
To say that this is an experiment in radical democracy is accurate. What the villagers are trying to accomplish will make the entire city of Rochester take notice and watch. What the people are watching already is an organic community evolving from the ground up, taking root and beginning to create its own ecosystem. (Under the Mayor’s strict orders, the police will not prevent this community from experimenting with democratic self-governance as long as people are not harmed.)
There are those who will try to destroy this community just because it represents a threat to their self-worth, self-possessions, and self-control. There will be others who want this experiment to fail because they do not want their stereotypes to be wrong. The guilt that comes from realizing how callous one has been to the homeless is a moral shock that most culprits are not looking to trigger. And there will be those who want Sanctuary Village to fall apart because it represents an economic model that can be copied by intergenerational, multiethnic, multiracial, self-organizing, and decentralized populations all over the world. This is a major problem for the powers that be. After all, they have a vested interest in stifling true democracy whenever it tries to flourish in the open air. Everyday a thousand cars are driving by this symbol of living resistance to the corporate dominion.
Despite these barriers and potential enemies, Sanctuary Village manages to grow larger and more developed with dwindling media attention and vulnerable supply lines. If given the freedom to exist on their own terms, Sanctuary Village can grow into a community that makes its own products, creates its own energy, advocates on behalf of its own needs, establishes moral codes of its own choosing, and shares the message of unconditional love for its own reasons. This can happen whether they live outside in tents or inside modern facilities. The location of Sanctuary Village does not mean anything. It is a concept that applies to anyone’s life if they are struggling to live for safety, autonomy, and respect.
This is not a camp of desperate men and women seeking another pathetic handout from a society that wishes they were invisible. If you look closely at their situation, and if you spend some time talking to the men and women living their on a daily basis, it will become clear that these are profoundly beautiful human beings with remarkable talents in music, conversation, resourcefulness, laughter, philosophy, hungers, debates, doubts, sorrows and so much more. Ultimately, they are a community of believers that needs to be believed in.