Last night, I overnighted with around forty other folks, about half of whom were homeless, at the City Hall encampment held by the Real Change Organizing project. Somewhere between 11 and 4 am I got some sleep. I don't know how people do it. Even with the benefit of a sleeping bag, air pad, and dome tent, my night in the cold and rain was physically miserable.
For the 1,600 or so people in Seattle whose needs are unmet by the shelter and housing options that are available this isn't a one night lark. It's their reality. The fact that people are dying on our streets is unsurprising.
At the rally against campsite clearances we held to kick off the camp, Seattle King County Coalition for the Homeless Director Alison Eisinger asked a very good question. Why, when the city is doing so much to end homelessness, would the Mayor's office treat us, their allies in the homeless advocacy community, as the enemy? I think what she actually said was, "Why would they want to piss us off?"
She was of course talking about the Human Service Department's high-handed and duplitious response to being called on their secret policy of campsite clearances, and their ensuing scramble to manage the media attention, legal liability, and political pressure that followed.
My guess is that there's pressure coming from somewhere else. I have some guesses also as to where. The downtown condo boom is attracting a wave of affluence to the downtown, as more and more who can afford the pleasures of urban living opt to do so. In the few blocks around Pike Pace Market, 505 new condos will come on line within the next two years with an average value of $2 million each. Over the next three years, 5,000 or so new condos will open downtown. The premise is that those who opt for the urban lifestyle will not be made uncomfortable by some of the harsher realities that prevail.
This represents an enormous amount of investment, presumably by powerful people who have allies, all of whom know the value of a campaign contribution.
Which gives Mayor Nickels a two-year time-line, both to the next election and the move in date for the new Xanadu. This doesn't align very well with projected progress on "ending homelessness." So other tactics are necessary, and the commitment to these tactics is firm.
So some counter-pressure is called for.
A funny thing happened this morning. Last night, a well-decorated officer told one of our leaders that the Deputy Mayor would be by to talk with us at 9:00 AM. Mayor's staff called again after sunrise to confirm. We had a message of our own, formulated in the giddy morning hours shortly after the first Starbucks opened at 5:30 AM.
We alerted the media that Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis was coming to talk to us, and that we had an announcement for him.
I need to backtrack here to say I've only had two other interactions with Ceis. Once last summer, I interrupted an interview that Sharon Chan of the PI was doing to show her a finger puppet I'd been playing with. The time before was just after Nickels came into office. He'd requested a meeting after Real Change ran a critical piece on his boss. Amazingly, he told me that unless we allowed prior to publication opportunity to comment on articles, our access would be very limited.
We'd never had access, so I wasn't all that impressed by the threat.
So anyway, Tim arrived, and an awkward conversation ensued.
Ceis: So you guys have some petitions to deliver or something.
Us: No. That's at noon.
Ceis: But you said you had petitions. That's why I'm here.
Us: We said we would deliver petitions at noon. You called us. No one said anything about petitions.
Ceis: Well, I won't be there. Neither will the Mayor.
Us: Well, the petitions aren't ready yet, so we'll just give them to who ever's there.
Ceis: You can give them to the secretary.
Ceis: Is there anything else you wanted to say (by now, about three television cameras have homed in on our utterly mundane conversation).
Us: Yes. We're going to be back every three months, until the City has ended homelessness.
Ceis: You can go through Fleets and Facilities to apply for a City Hall Plaza public event permit.
Us: We'll be here, either way.
At this point, the cameras had tightened in. We backed out of the circle, leaving Ceis to be captured by a phalanx of TV reporters who wanted to know how the City was responding to advocates concerns.
We didn't plan an ambush. We really thought Ceis would have something to say. We figured he'd be expecting media and didn't want to disappoint. When the reporters were done, David Bloom and Bill Kirlin-Hackett of the Interfaith Taskforce on Homelessness respectfully continued the grilling. Then, as a homeless woman asked what they were going to do about people dying on the streets (those numbers keep going up) Ceis smirked and fled, and we offered our side of the story.
"Power concedes nothing without a demand," said Frederick Douglas. "Never has, and never will." We're building a demand-side response to the supply-side economy. Ceis is a guy who knows a little about hardball. Think of us as the opposing team.
— photo by Revel Smith