Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Answer the Damn Question!

On Thursday, March 13th, the Real Change Organizing Project and friends will stand with those who struggle to survive in Seattle’s public spaces. Your support is vital. If you have a few hours during the day, we need you. If you can spend the night at City Hall Plaza, we need you. Come stand for human dignity, compassion, and public accountability.

Since last spring, the Mayor’s office has coordinated a campaign of harassment and intimidation against homeless campers. The obvious question has been asked a thousand times: Where are these people supposed to go?

The City has yet to offer an honest answer. While this year’s one night homeless count found more than 2,600 people surviving outside of a maxed-out emergency shelter system, the systematic destruction of homeless campsites has continued unabated. Survival gear is destroyed. No-trespass citations are issued against “unauthorized camping.”

The city has criminalized both the act of sleeping and the storage of survival gear on all public land. All camping is “unauthorized.”

This is an inhumane waste of resources that places the blame for extreme misery and poverty squarely upon the victim.

And to what end? Campers find other places to go. They replace the survival gear that the city destroys. Eventually, they return to sites that have been cleared. They have little choice. Since this new policy of targeting homeless campers seems to have regional coordination with the Department of Transportation, even those who leave town are likely to face similar harassment.

The mayor’s public relations team has vilified homeless campers as lazy and irresponsible, diseased and dangerous. They have offered smooth assurances that the concerns of homeless advocates have been met, and that services and shelter are available to displaced homeless campers. They have couched their assault in the language of compassion.

Simply put, they lie. Here’s what they say, and what they really mean.

Shelter will be made available to those displaced from encampments: This, so far as we can tell, means that individuals will be offered a mat on the floor of a City overflow shelter for a limited period of time that has yet to be defined. Nobody is talking about opening new shelter. Last January 24, on a night when all the shelters were filled and the severe weather overflow shelters were 40 people past capacity, more than 2,600 individuals were found surviving outside in the pre-dawn hours. Where are they supposed to go? The question remains unanswered.

Personal property will be stored for up to 60 days: The City’s draft policy defines all tents, sleeping bags, blankets, tarps, and other survival gear as immediately disposable. When they say “personal property,” they mean identification, military papers, prescriptions, perhaps photos, and eyeglasses. In other words, when people return to their camps on a cold night to find that everything they own is gone, the gear that they need to survive outside will almost surely have been thrown away.

Campers will receive a minimum of 48 hours notice: The notices the City posts are pre-printed with a 48-hour warning for disposal of belongings. While city departments will have ten business days to respond to reports of camping with removal, this does not translate into the nearly two week’s warning that is often implied.

Outreach workers will offer campers shelter and services: Seattle’s Crisis Clinic refused to have their number listed on the notices of removal because they understand that little to nothing is available to callers. Providing effective referrals to those who have little reason to trust means having the capacity to build relationships over time and offering actual resources. Without this, talk of “outreach” is mostly a sham.

By the end of March, the Mayor’s office will finalize their rules and procedures for homeless campsite removal. Minutes of last January’s public hearing are available on the City’s Human Services Department website. In over three hours of testimony, not one person spoke in favor of the draft policy.

On March 13, concerned citizens have the opportunity to send a clear message to the Mayor and his staff.

Our message is simple: Help, Don’t Harass. End the sweeps of homeless encampments. Work with advocates to provide alternatives. Provide real outreach, sufficient emergency shelter alternatives, and expanded services to those in need.

Visibility teams will stand throughout the downtown with banners, leaflets, and petitions to raise awareness of the City’s actions. Dinner, provided by Operation Sacklunch, will be served at 5:30 pm on City Hall Plaza by leaders of Seattle’s faith community. We will camp overnight on City Hall Plaza to highlight Seattle’s critical need for housing and shelter. There will be a final visibility push before the tents come down on Friday morning.

Please go to realchangenews.org and click on the Take Action logo up top. This will take you to our advocacy page where you can pledge your participation in the Day of Action. Sign up for a visibility shift. Commit to staying overnight. Download a petition to distribute, or simply add your name to the many who have already signed.

Silence is complicity. Your action matters. Please pledge your support and help make March 13th the strong showing of community concern that homeless people need and deserve.

A pre-meeting for our day of action will be held on Sunday, March 9, 5 pm, at Trinity United Methodist Church at the corner of 65th and 23rd in Ballard. We encourage you to attend. For more information, email natalien@realchangenews.org, or call 441-3247.

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