Thursday, February 21, 2008

Who's Side is Bill On?

I think I've watched the City Inside/Out episode focusing on homelessness in Seattle about five times now because I can't get over the fact that Committee to End Homelessness in King County Director Bill Block managed to go on a show devoted entirely to the homeless encampment issue with Human Services head Patricia McInturff and not have a word to say on the topic.

But I have a correction to make. Up till now, I've been saying that Block has been silent on this issue. That's not true. I recently remembered that he was quoted in a PI story on the release of the draft protocols.

"The proposal covers a number of key components that concerned advocates," opined our leading homeless advocate. This is a classically neutral non-statement. Could he possibly have been more lawyerly?

"The proposal covers a number of key components that concerned advocates." Let's parse this slightly, since it won't hold up to much more. The verb-tenses, for example, are interesting. Covers is present, and concerned is past. Are we to draw from this that these concerns have been met? I haven't talked to a single advocate who thinks so, but Bill isn't saying. He's only implying.

So why does this matter? I mean, we all know that Bill needs to walk a line to keep the access to funding open. But where that line is matters. When the major institutional players can't or won't challenge the City when the chips are down, the Mayor thinks he can just ride the riff-raff out. The bet here is that power conferred by power can be taken away, and power that isn't can be safely ignored.

We need to build a different kind of power that is less beholden and afraid.

It's not that this issue doesn't come before the CEHKC. Real Change vendor Michael Garcia sits on the Governing Board. He fought to get this on the agenda at a recent quarterly meeting and was shut down and ignored. If there was any ambiguity as to his token status before, this clarified it for him.

From what I hear, United Way Director Jon Fine can be relied on to forcefully assert the encampment issue's irrelevance to CEHKC whenever it arises.

Which isn't surprising. United Way thinks they own homelessness in this town and have a $25 million fundraising campaign that depends upon results for it's success. The metrics here are less than complicated. Numbers going down good. Numbers going up bad. Campsite clearances, and other measures such as no parking from 2-5 a.m. signs in known car camp areas and Park Rangers with a mandate to harass, should bring those numbers down. So you won't hear a peep out of them. Or, by extension, Bill "currently on vacation in France" Block.

He also said this: "The ultimate solution is to create enough housing and services so we don't have to face that issue. That's the hardest part for everybody."

News flash Bill: We do have to face this issue, because there isn't enough housing and services and people are suffering in ways that few of us can begin to understand. Is there something I'm missing?

Whose interests are being protected here? Clearly United Way's. Probably the Mayor's. I'm guessing that the business interests approve.

But raising money to house chronically homeless people and building a sort of a consensus for homeless mitigation among the government, business and institutional non-profit elite isn't the same thing as being a homeless advocate. For that you need a grassroots strategy that builds for power and listens to the poor.

Bill's a politically connected fundraiser and perhaps one of the few people in the City who can manage the institutional contradictions and inside politics of CEHKC. But he's not a homeless advocate. To do that, you need to pay more attention to the "homeless" part.

Which brings us to this week's poll. What does it mean that the Committee to End Homelessness in King County is sitting out the worst thing to happen to homeless people in Seattle since Mark Sidran? Who's side is Bill on? The Mayor's? Or homeless people's? Both? Neither? As always, vote at top right. Multiple choices are allowed.

The people have spoken. Of 23 respondents, one felt Bill is a "homeless advocate" in the sense that he actually sides with homeless people. 43% said he is on the Mayor's side, which would make him a Mayor's advocate, and another 43% felt he was on neither side, which would make him no kind of advocate at all, and more of a careful bureaucrat. Just 13% said he straddles some sort of middle ground, in which he represents both homeless people's interest and the Mayor's. That would be hard.


Dr. Wes Browning said...

I tried to vote "neither" and the machine told me to try again. I don't think Bill is on the Mayor's side. I think he's just afraid to take the Mayor on because he genuinely believes that CEHKC would unravel if he did. He's not on the side of homeless people, either. If he were, he'd figure out a way to keep CEHKC together without the Mayor.

In short, I really think Bill Block believes that all that unsheltered homeless people suffer at the hands of the city and WDOT is a worthwhile and glorious sacrifice that they make in order to further his goal of seeing CEHKC do what good he imagines it will do, years from now, when the unicorns come back, and everyone has his own private rainbow.

Tim Harris said...

Great idea. Since no one had really voted yet, I added "Both" and "Neither" as choices.

Bill said...

I was at the most recent CEH Governing Board, and Garcia did raise the issue of encampments. It merited a long reply from audience member McInturff. But of more interest during the meeting preceding this was a short interjection, perhaps started by Fine or he was just second to comment, saying in effect, "we have to keep focused on ending homelessness." I believe it was in response to the many peripheral issues that truly ending homelessness requires, things like too little housing, no waiting line of employers, services that come in boxes like wines,..stuff like that. Point of all this being, there is a lot of shuffling the deck chairs on this ocean liner called the 10 Year Plan, but the reality is, we aren't on an ocean liner. Moral: Get out of the box. Many remedies are falling by the roadside because they are undignified remedies. Our true fault is that we who are housed are wanting our dignity to stay in place, so we throw remedies overboard. Those homeless suffer so many indignities they no longer count, or can count, or perhaps care. Alas, since they are the most human among us, I think they care most. Which gets us back to Garcia. He got his words into the meeting, even though the agenda made no room for him. He spoke during public comment, reserved for the audience, and/or those whose voice was not on the agenda. Kudos to Garcia,...