"Summer Battle Looming Over Free Box"
by Emanuel Sferios
from Slingshot issue# 55
....To turn public opinion against the Freebox, City and UC officials have embarked on a propaganda campaiogn to associate the Freebox with drugs and crime, claiming that there is an atmopshere of fear and intimidation around the box so great that clothing donors are scared away and homeless people cannot even get close enough to retrieve clothes. This notion is laughable to anyone who spends any time in the park and sees the hundreds of people a day who use the box: homeless people, mothers with their children, students, travelers, etc. Even the basketball players at the park ruffle through the box in between games.
Of course, all big lies contain a shred of truth which is distorted and blown out of proportion. In this case the scapegoats are those who hang out around the Freebox waiting for clothes so they can be the first to look through new bags in the hope of finding items fashionable enough to re-sell on the street or at Buffalo Exchange.
To the City, the notion of finding a Freebox 'alternative' means establishing some kind of mechanism, no matter how ineffectual, for providing 24-hour access to free clothing. This would give the impression that the City, by removing the freebox (which 'truly needy' homeless can't get to, remember) was actually trying to help homeless people. The Freebox, however, is more than just a homeless clothing service. It's a community barter system, where anyone can put anything in and anyone can take anything out. The fact that it's not just homeless people who use the Freebox, and it's not just clothing that's exchanged through it, is something the City and UC don't want to admit -- because you cannot replace a community-based barter program with a charity administering to the poor and downtrodden from a church basement.
Nevertheless, City Staff took great lengths to come up with some kind of 24-hour clothing distribution program. The plan was to install three one-way drop boxes around town, where clothes could be put in but not taken out. The clothes would then be picked up in trucks and delivered to some already established church clothing ministry, which brillaint flash of insight, set pre-arranged packages of clothes in various sizes outside the door.
They offered thousands of dollars to the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless to administer the program. The Chaplaincy, however, concerned that the City's true motives were political, refused to accept the offer. This left them in a real bind. There was no other charitable organization willing or able to take on the project and without an 'alternative' in place, they could not rationalize removing the Freebox.
But that didn't stop them. They went ahead with the one-way drop box program anyway. Right around the first of the year, the City purchased three street-corner mailboxes, painted them brown, and stuck them around town. One of them is on Haste Street less than 50 feet from the Freebox! They painted signs on each one saying, "Clothing Donation Box: Clothes will be distributed to those in need," and had a press conference to announce their new humanitarian program.
City employees have been collecting clothes from these boxes three times a day for six months now, and people have been droppping clothes into these mailboxes for the same amount of time, believing that the clothes were going to the needy. Where they are actually going, however, is a different story. For a while they were being warehoused, while the City continued, with no success, to convince the Chaplaincy to accept them into their clothing ministry.
When it became apparent that was not going to happen, they started giving them to Good Will, who sells most of them and ships the rest overseas. The only needy people, therefore, who actually get free clothes from those mailboxes are the clever ones who use coat-hangers to reach down into them. It is reprehensible that the City continues this blatant deception upon the people of Berkeley and the good-willed individuals who think they are donating clothes to a functioning homeless service....
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