Monday, January 28, 2008

Some Kind of Hearing

Tonight was the "public hearing" on the Mayor's draft anti-homeless encampment. It was unlike any other that I've attended. For one, there wasn't a single elected official in attendance. You'd think that since it's his policy that he's so proud of, Greg might want to hear what people have to say in person. But you'd be wrong about that. Sitting up front was the head of each affected department, plus a smattering of other top level Mayoral staff. Outside of the brief and highly selective presentation of the policy "outlines" that began the hearing, they were silent throughout.

The room, which was calculated by its largeness to make the audience feel small and insignificant, felt full, even though about a third of the 180 or so seats remained empty on this night of icy roads and impending snow. Last I saw, 64 people had signed up to testify. When I left at 8 pm, they were up to around the 45th speaker, and the hearing had been extended beyond it's 7:30 pm scheduled end.

Only one person had spoken in favor of the Mayor's policy, and it was nutbar guerrilla columnist Craig Thompson, spinning his tales of criminality, murder, and the infiltration of the heroin trade into Seattle's homeless encampments, and how we need to destroy people's camps in order to save them from this certain menace.

Other testimony was much more moving. Widely respected poor people's lobbyist and social work professor Nancy Amidei spoke of an east coast conference she'd just attended where everyone she told of the Mayor's policy was appalled, with many offering resources and advice. Nancy said there was nothing to do with this plan but to toss it out and start over. Stan Burris, with the most riveting (and coherent) speech I've seen him deliver in thirteen years. Real Change vendor John Bailey with his moving assertion that homeless campers bleed red, just as do those on the other side of the table. Wes Browning, with his straightforward list of obvious questions and his equally obvious disgust. SKCCH ED Alison Eisinger, who stated the coalition's starting point for negotiation: a real plan to meet the survival needs of the unserved. Doug McKeehan, the very first speaker, whose speech was barely audible over the malfunctioning PA, but whose choking outrage came across loud and clear.

There were too many remarkable moments to list.

Speaker after speaker after speaker spoke of the moral bankruptcy of the city's criminalization of survival, and derided the cynical ease with which this plan was put forth. Never have I seen such a one-sided response to any public policy.

My own speech seemed to be a big hit, although if looks could kill, Patricia McInturff's piercing death ray would have left me in ashes. Here's what I said.
When I got to work this morning there was a letter on this issue from the Mayor waiting for me. It didn't really have anything to say, and didn't address any of our concerns, but it was striking in that it began and ended by speaking of his commitment to ending homelessness.

Well, so far, so good. We all want to end homelessness.

But the words and the reality are at odds. The Mayor’s commitment to the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness is used as cover, as a fig leaf, for a policy that can only be described as deeply immoral.

We are not ending homelessness. And the number of homeless people in Seattle does not “appear to be diminishing,” as the Mayor’s letter also states. This year’s one night count found a 15% increase in those who are trying to survive outside of our overcrowded and inadequate shelter system. That goes up to 18% if you limit the comparison to areas counted both this year and last.

We are not ending homelessness. The best efforts of our Ten Year plan have fallen well short of stated goals. The Mayor’s letter says 1,000 units have been produced since 2005. The goal for production and upgrade with services is 950 units annually. We’re not even halfway to being on track.

We are not ending homelessness because the city has drawn a line in the sand on adding emergency shelter capacity. The glib formula that Housing, Not Shelter is the answer to homelessness ignores the enormity of the growing desperation on our streets.

We are not ending Homelessness when City housing policy, as generous and progressive as it is, is trumped by pro-development policies that turn our City into a playground for the affluent at the expense of the average and low-income people who can no longer afford to live here.

And we are definitely not ending homelessness when we define those who struggle to survive outside as criminals. When we routinely speak of their encampments as places of filth, and depositories of human waste. When we speak of homeless encampments as somehow linked to the drug trade. When we engage the media with alarmist rhetoric about weapons, murder, and rape.

This is nothing less than the lowest form of stigmatizing hate speech, and has no place in a City Committed to Ending Homelessness.

To eliminate the possibility for survival without offering real alternatives is immoral. To define the blankets, tents, and bedrolls upon which these campers depend as garbage, as a variety of hazardous waste, is immoral. To systematically harass those who have nothing, and to engage the broader community as allies in this campaign of harassment, and then pretend that all of this comes from a place of compassion? That's immoral.
The rather inelegant wrap-up can be attributed to my going on a few sentences past the point when the chair loudly thanked me for my testimony. It's amazing sometimes how fast three minutes can go.


"Uta" Urban said...

How do you make a poor pragmatist cry? Use a word like immoral effectively. Like a swift sword. Thank you.

Gurldoggie said...

That was quite a meeting. Even the folks at the head of the room had to be impressed with the range of experience that the speakers represented, all with a similar message: tear up these proposed rules and start again. Thanks, as always, for your eloquence.

janbot said...

Thanks, Tim.