Friday, October 5, 2007

What Zero Tolerance for Camping Means

I have it on good authority that Seattle has a zero tolerance policy for homeless encampments. This is not a policy that, so far as I know, has officially been acknowledged. Here's how it looks. An encampment is discovered. Police or some other functionaries are quietly dispatched. Belongings are disposed of. Warnings are given to not return. Most people never see it or notice

But stop a moment to consider the meaning of "zero." Not one. Zero.

The reality of this came home this morning when a vendor stopped me as we passed each other outside of Real Change. This guy is around sixty. Quiet. Gentle. Built strong. The city is his home. Literally. He beds down outside every night.

"The police came up to me in my sleeping bag last night and told me I needed to get into a shelter," he said. " Apparently this happened near midnight in some out of the way spot in Queen Anne.

The joke here, in case you're not laughing yet, is that the shelters are full and are turning people away each night.

"They said they wouldn't ticket me this time," he said, "but I needed to go. Are the shelters federally funded."

This vendor believes that if he goes to a shelter, the people who are watching him will know, and he'll lose his social security benefits. He's eligible in another five years.

"I've darn near lost everything," he said. "I can't afford to lose that too."

This was a guy who can take care of himself, but he still reminded me of a frightened child.

It was just the thing I needed to renew my feelings of rage for the day.

It's almost always something.

I tried to reassure him that there was no relationship between shelter and his benefits, but he looked dubious. If you've ever tried to reason with schizophrenia you know that I mean.

Afterwards, I considered his odds of living to collect social security and decided they weren't all that great.

This is how Seattle will eventually achieve that twenty percent decrease in "chronic homelessness" that they presently need to lie about. If you set things up so that contacts with police are more frequent and threats of arrest, ticketing, and fines follow, people will eventually get the idea and go somewhere else. Somewhere not quite so urban, where they're not being counted with quite the same meticulous precision. In LA, the police go out to the urban camps to ostentatiously wake people up and count them every two week, and then feed the GPS data into a GIS system, This has to be seen to be believed. While some locales are more extreme than others, the pattern is similar everywhere.

City goes upscale to reinvent itself as a center of affluent consumption and convenient enviro-friendly urban living in these challenging times of sink or swim capitalism, and the authorities are enlisted in helping the homeless learn that they're no longer welcome. Meanwhile, business, philanthropy, government, human service providers and others are focused on solving chronic homelessness through Housing First.

The cops provide the stick when no one's looking. We all congratulate ourselves on our ability to offer carrots. End result: they go away. We declare victory over homelessness. Woo-hoo!

I've actually noticed a new phrase entering the lexicon alongside ending "chronic homelessness" and "street homelessness." We are now out to "reduce visible homelessness."

This, at least, is refreshing in its honesty. Here it crops up near the end of a City of San Diego press release. Here's a guy running for office in San Fransisco with an anti-visible homeless plank in his platform.

Here, as well, is a fascinating bit I found in a summary of a Law School journal article.
Part Two describes the evolution of homeless legal advocacy. First, it looks at the initial wave of litigation during the 1980s over the right to emergency shelter for the homeless. It then examines the second phase of litigation during the 1990s that challenged the attempts by municipalities to reduce the visible homeless population through various measures, such as anti-vagrancy, anti-camping, and "quality of life" ordinances. While this litigation has led to important victories and captured the public's attention (though not always its wholehearted support), it remains only a part of the picture. Suing over the right to emergency shelter or the right to panhandle on streets or sleep in parks is critical to many homeless people, but it does not address the underlying causes of homelessness, such as the crisis of affordable housing, decreasing income and public benefit levels, and lack of access to other needed services.
Here's a good one. The US Interagency Council on Homelessness' Philip Mangano, the man for whom my contempt know no bounds, met with the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty last August and agreed to work with them to end the criminalization of homeless people.

How the hell is he gonna do that? That's half of his strategy.

According to the agreement letter that the first meeting produced, there should be a follow-up meeting happening right around now. Can't wait to hear how that's working out.

1 comment:

Bill said...

As I mentioned to you in person, we saw this dispruption and removal of homeless occur preceding the King County One Night Count 2 years ago. I suggest we go to the source: Seattle's Chief first, since I think hizzoner is the first to give such otders to his law enforcement, and then to the County Sheriff, whom I don't think would ever stoop to that,...but we ought to meet with her anyway.