Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Stigmatizing the Homeless

Just today, I was thinking about all the shit I say to reporters that almost never makes it into print. Here's one time that I can't complain. Robert Dobbs at Tacoma's Weekly Volcano reports on that city's failure to make progress on Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness goals (chronic homelessness up 27% since 2007) and the aggressive crackdown on visible poverty that has overtaken efforts to help.

Refreshingly, Tacoma calls their sweeps policy the Encampment Elimination Program. At least this smelly city to the south doesn't leave you guessing as to what they're about. For the first time in the history of print media, my core concern with the chronic homeless focus actually made it into someone's story. You'll never see this in the Seattle Times.
“The thing that I keep struggling to get my head around is how distant appearances and reality are when it comes to city policy around homelessness,” says Harris. “Everyone has embraced the rhetoric around ending homelessness, but I see very little of it in terms of what is coming to prevail. What this really comes down to is reducing visible homelessness. ” ...

“I don’t think people understand what the 10-year plan is all about,” he says. “Why would the (federal) administration that seems to be (the) most hostile to poor people in 70 years take on this task of solving homelessness? The answer is that it’s not really about solving the issue. Truth is, the chronic homeless make up a very small percentage of the overall population. This is really about visible homelessness. You have this federally backed strategy that is essentially a template for a very sophisticated propaganda model. It’s a way of reframing homelessness to focus on the most visible and dysfunctional and most easy to blame.”

That is one of the most damaging aspects of the 10-year plan, says Harris — it makes the homeless easy to dismiss. Once you stigmatize a population, “it’s pretty easy to do whatever you want to them.”
After decades of advocates stressing that homelessness has many faces and most people don't fit the stereotype, federal funding priorities and local development-driven imperatives to hide poverty have combined to make homelessness all about the drunks, addicts, and crazy people. And the major media is always willing to toe the city line: We're sick of their unsightly misery, and we don't have to tolerate it. They're service-resistant vectors of criminal activity. So screw them, in a compassionate Seattle sort of way.

Speaking of screwing homeless people, the Downtown Seattle Association's long-held dream of shutting down Seattle's public toilets may now come to pass. This has been on their agenda for at least two years, but Tom Rassmussen, citing the lack of evidence that this is really a problem, gave them no traction with City Council. Well, things change. The Department of Public Utilities has generated the report they need to make it into a problem, and they've got Sally Clark on board and a new, more compliant, council. The panhandling legislation can't be far away. See Sharon Chan's Seattle Times story, which also gets my problem with this right.

Tim Harris, executive director for homeless-activist newspaper Real Change, wants the city not only to keep the automated toilets, but also to add portable toilets. Removing toilets would force people to relieve themselves in streets and alleys, Harris said.

"If you don't provide alternatives and viable alternatives, then it's not fair to blame people for activities that they have little choice but to engage in," he said.

Apparently, the plan is to somehow get local businesses and government buildings to staff and more prominently feature the availability of their toilets. Yep. That's the plan. And it will cost just as much as keeping the ones we have.

I actually went into this whole conspiratorial rant about how they'll take the toilets away, and then when the whole downtown smells like a Belltown alley on a hot summer day and there's shit on every doorstep, we'll hear all about the filthy, disgusting, homeless people who are too lazy to even find their way to the bathroom.

But for some reason she didn't use that.

I had high hopes for the Seattle Metropolitan story on the Seattle sweeps that came out in their new April issue, but it turned out to be a rather bland overview and to offer little new.

McInturff said she was "moved" by the three hours of entirely one-sided testimony at January's public hearing. They may tweak the 48-hour notification, and rethink the $25 limitation on goods they're willing to store. Wow. Look at those big-ass crocodile tears running all down her face. They apparently chose not to hear the "throw this heinous piece of crap out, start over, and listen to us this time" theme.

Seattle Metro, having the luxury of magazine-style journalism, should have been the ones to do something in-depth. But instead they accepted the city's frame and pretty much went brain-dead from there, as is standard media practice. I'd link, but they kept it off their website.

Finally, my friend Silja Talvi got a great piece into the April In These Times that covers the Seattle sweeps issue as a stark example of national trends and linking it to the development boom. She calls it a homeless eradication program. Nice phrase. I'd like to see it stick. They didn't have the story online when I checked, but maybe they will sometime.


Anonymous said...

Hi Tim,

You're right. The 10-Year-Plan is a cover for laissez-faire economic policy that does nothing to address underlying economic inequality. The sweeps are the iron fist inside the velvet glove.

Nothing will change this except broad politics. There is currently no coalition among the poor, the near-poor, and the middle class to fight for redistributional taxes and government creation of jobs.

The upcoming recession may change this situation. Already, Congressman Frank is calling for regulation of non-commercial banks. This is the tip of the spear for the notion that money has responsibility to society. Both major parties have abandoned that idea (born in the New Deal) over the past 20 years.

The question is what does the new "movement" look like? You have written about the futility of sitting around a table with like-minded people doing vague "self-empowerment". How do activists help more "moderate" and "conventional" people organize for power?

Bill said...

Encampment Elimination Program,1st thought, that could well be what we'd call putting honey buckets near encampments. Sadly, it is more in line with "eradication," as you point out below. Awhile back while living in San Jose I recall a letter I wrote and got published in the Mercury-News battling the notion of "compassion-fatigue." The notion had been fomented by someone trying to explain the lack of energy to help and bear with the poor. I've never accepted that "fatigue" thinking, because it isn't fatigue with any regard to the homeless/poor, it is more in line with not having energy or will (or both) to set aside all the toys/gimicks/ploys in which we engage in constructing the perfect life, for us, and as applies, our families. Little wonder we have so little energy left for the homeless and poor! Such poor babies, we are! I think we can debate class, economic circumstances, and all the wonderfully wise intellectually and systemic ingredients that make this a crisis. Truth be told, it is sadly so much more pedestrian as to why the average jane or joe ain't got much energy to help, uses the small reserve they think is all they have left to battle for a clean street free of homeless, and so on,... See? They, or is it we, think their saving the whole perfect life dream. Maybe one corner, one strip of street, at a time. Of course, this too passes. Sort of a Suburban Elimination program,... discard any effort that may appear you are dedicated to change over the long haul, receptacles may be filled weekly and will be emptied, just be sure that none of it spills onto your neighbor's lawn or they will follow your former footsteps for at least 4 weeks before they realize it is just too big to manage with so little reserve,... must be that toxic "compassion fatigue" at work again. Oh well, they just turn on the iPod,... saved again. Moderate and conventional people have limited their movements to indoor plumbing.