San Luis Obispo City Council candidate promotes change
October 25, 2012
OPINION By MATT STRZEPEK
Greetings. My name is Matt Strzepek and I am a candidate for San Luis Obispo City Council. Strzepek means “cloth” in Polish and I am running to weave our community back together. Like many of you, I am concerned about the homelessness in our midst and, in particular, the recent arrest of Richard Kirenga, a young, homeless man from Africa.
I met Richard several weeks ago and found him to be a peaceful, well-meaning, and soft-spoken individual. I have never seen him act in a threatening manner toward anyone, nor have any members of the homeless community with whom I interact. Since his arrest, I have been contacted by several citizens who know Richard and deem him a polite, respectful man. Like most homeless people in San Luis Obispo, it seems that he has been misunderstood and misinterpreted. It is my sincere hope that our community reaches out to Richard and helps him obtain access to food, showers, and mental health services.
After carefully reviewing a video of the arrest and speaking with several witnesses who state that Richard was not acting aggressively toward anyone, I have concluded that Richard was not acting in a threatening manner before or during his arrest. By all accounts, he was simply waiting with his hands in his pockets on McMillan Avenue for a friend to bring him a meal, as he had been denied a meal by a martinetish employee at the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter.
Our police officers have a difficult job and deserve credit for their usually courteous behavior. However, they sometimes abuse their power. I have been aggressively approached by police officers seventeen times since February for taking shelter in my vehicle, usually in the middle of the night.
At about noon on April 30, I was wrongly charged for camping in French Park even though I was just munching on a stalk of celery and reading the Tao Te Ching. On October 1, the police played a role in denying people food, showers, and beds when they reported the names of homeless people on McMillan Avenue prior to 5 p.m. to employees at the shelter. (Surely it is illegal to ban homeless people from being on a public road any hour of the day.)
Then, on October 2, immediately following the city council’s passage of a new parking ordinance which will ban people from taking shelter in their vehicles after proper signage is displayed, a police officer verbally abused me and two female citizens and ridiculed us for being without housing. He proceeded to issue Chris and Madison, the female citizens, a 72-hour impound notice for being uncooperative when in fact they were cooperative. Fast forward to October 18 and Richard’s harsh treatment at the hands of the police, which included confiscating his only belongings (his backpack and sleeping bag), and a disturbing pattern emerges.
While any police officer abusing power must be held accountable (I still have not received a response from the mayor, city council, or police chief regarding my formal complaint), there is a more pervasive problem here. Dee Torres, who contradictorily called for the ticketing and fining of homeless people instead of advocating on their behalf, wrongly blames the crisis on Oprah Winfrey’s “America’s happiest city” moniker.
I hold the mayor and city council members responsible. The abusive police behavior stems from the divisive tone that the mayor and city council members have set. Their failed attempts to scare homeless people out of our city have caused much division and mistrust.
Council members have forgotten that people come before policy and their policies have pitted neighbor against neighbor. Several of them have publically referred to homeless people as those who “want to,” those who “cannot,” and those who “will not.” I find such labels, along with Adam Hill’s recent suggestion that dignity must be earned, demeaning and downright appalling. People deserve to be treated with dignity and respect no matter what their socioeconomic status.
There is a solution, however, and it involves you, the citizens of San Luis Obispo. You have a voice. You have the power to replace the incumbents and vote for candidates who will champion the rights of all residents be they homeless or housed.
I am the only candidate for city council who has offered practical, common sense solutions regarding the issue of homelessness in our city, including: creating a practical parking program at interested businesses and houses of worship in addition to designated city parks located away from residences and businesses; making some bathrooms accessible overnight; restructuring the services offered at the Prado Day Center and Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter so that they are more efficient and transparent; and getting those with mental health issues the assistance they need.
As a former counselor with sound interpersonal and mediation skills, I will bring understanding, empathy and compassion to the city council.
My generation, known as Generation X, is weary of the current council’s tired, worn-out approaches which have proven to be so ineffective. It is time to reinvigorate the city council with new energy and implement new ideas that will actually work. I am running for city council to make this city whole again. I believe that the only way we succeed as a city is by working together in a spirit of cooperation, inclusivity, and unity. If you honor me with your vote, you can be sure that I will place People before policy. Learn more about my ideas to unite us at mattforslo.com.
As I addressed the city council on May 1: “Our city’s greatness does not lie in its wealth, power, image, prestige, nor its moniker as ‘America’s happiest city.’ Rather, our greatness is measured by how we treat those whom are least among us: the poor, hungry, homeless, unemployed – those without a voice.”
Now pay attention, city officials, because it is my turn to educate you. The above statement means that you cannot continue to harass Richard, Chris, Madison, and all of the other people who, for whatever reason, have found themselves without a home. It means that you have to do the hard work the voters hired you to do and come up with solutions. Since you have failed to do so, it is time for you to vacate your offices and go.
Voltaire said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Remember, voters, you have an ace in your pocket – you wield the power in your hands.