Thursday, March 13, 2008

When Bureaucrats Attack ...


Paul Boden took off with my car this morning. I gave him the key, along with my blow-up air pad and sleeping bag. He wasn't sure he could manage the straight shot down Aurora and the left on 2nd to get to the Real Change office, but this is a guy who once spent two years hitching around Europe on no money. I had faith.

As for me, both my kids are sick with fevers and me along with them. Paul and a couple hundred others are sleeping out at City Hall tonight, but my sorry ass is here in bed. I probably wouldn't be much good anyway. I tried calling a reporter back today and it took me five minutes to remember my own phone number.

Paul is the ED of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a left-coast collaboration of grassroots homeless advocacy organizations who all face similar issues: local gentrification, rising homelessness, and municipalities that have gone on the attack against the visible poor. He's up from San Francisco to see the Seattle situation for himself.

Until recently, Seattle had the decency to be out of step with regional trends on screwing the poor, but we're learning fast. The great thing about WRAP is that we know what to expect. Everything we're seeing here has happened before in places like San Francisco and LA. But they're the vanguard. These cities have attained a level of meanness to which Seattle can only aspire.

This morning — as I sat assessing whether my racing heart and labored breathing should keep me from standing around in the rain and staying up all night at City Hall Plaza — Paul was on the phone to his people. Today's Chronicle ran an attack piece on the Coalition on Homelessness there.

Had the meddlesome San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness' Citation Defense Program not insisted on adding the burden of proof to the city's prosecution of James Allen Hill, writes columnist CW Nevius, the 38-year-old homeless man would have received the services he needs and would not have inconveniently overdosed on heroin in the city library.

Hill was a hard case, what is known in some circles around here as a "frequent flyer." He was cited at least fifteen times in less than half as many months for open container and public drunkenness. He once peed right on a police car. SFCOH, apparently got the last of these citations dismissed as well as several others. They have this wacky theory that homeless people who are ticketed by cops should have due process, and have an 89% success rate of getting charges dismissed.

"Services" is one of this slippery words that means something other than what you might think. It's like when Human Services head Patricia McInturff says the City of Seattle will hold onto and return people's "personal property" when they do sweeps of homeless campsites. To most of us, that would mean their stuff, including their survival gear. But to the City, it simply means identification, military papers, prescriptions, eyeglasses, and perhaps photos, so long as they've thought to attach contact information to these items.

Likewise, in San Francisco, "services" is much more likely to mean a spot in a shelter or a drop-in center than treatment, mental health counseling, or help getting a place. Access to these things lag far behind demand, even for those whom the court requires to get help.

But while services are a bit of an illusion, the citations are real, and so are the bench warrants and fines that pile up when they're ignored. So SFCOH and a similar group in LA have organized a legal line of defense. And for this they, and their funding, are under attack.

Apparently, Hill actually accepted services in one of the citations that attorneys settled. Nevius knew this, but it didn't fit in his man-dead-due-to-meddlesome-advocates frame. Facts are inconvenient things.
Often cases like Hill's never even make it to court. The district attorney's office says that is because homeless advocate attorneys drag out the process as long as possible, creating a paper bottleneck in the courts with "burden of proof" legal requests. There are so many steps and appeals that any misstep can result in a dismissal, which the DA's office says is why hundreds of "quality of life"' infractions are thrown out.

To illustrate, Assistant District Attorney Paul Henderson went through court records and found six cases in which Hill was represented in court by Homeless Coalition attorneys. In what has become a familiar refrain, those attorneys got three of the cases dismissed before they came to trial.

In the other three active cases, prosecutors had offered to drop the charges if Hill agreed to go into treatment for his alcohol problem, Henderson said.

"In other words, we were saying, we don't want to prosecute him, fine him, or send him to jail, but he's got to go to services. And he's got to show us proof that he's gone," he said.

The offer was declined as Hill's attorneys fought the citations. They were still fighting them when he died.

"There's a really good chance we could have saved this guy's life," said Dariush Kayhan, the city's homeless coordinator.

Dariush Kayhan was just hired at $169K to run San Francisco's homeless services for the City. That's before benefits. It takes a lot of money to live in the Bay Area, but it takes even more to ensure loyalty.

The James Hill story doesn't add up.

Fifteen citations. The Coalition took on six of them and won half. That leaves twelve other opportunities since last August for the City to get James Hill the "services" he needed.

Here's the thing that I've noticed. The more cities say they've committed to "no longer managing homelessness" and are committed to "ending homelessness in 10 years," the greater their hostility toward the advocates who might have a different idea as to how this should be done. And the more sophisticated and less honest their management of homelessness becomes.

It's happening everywhere. The bureaucrats, threatened by the advocates, have placed themselves in charge. The package comes with a commitment to affordable housing that they wave around like an invisibility cloak to hide it's sheer inadequacy. Since "housing and not shelter is the answer to homelessness," there is a slow but sure attrition in emergency shelter options. And then there is the increased repression of the visible poor.

In the twenty years since Mayor Giuliani became the darling of New York by "cleaning up" Times Square, the methods have become more sophisticated and cloaked in the language of compassion.

There is greatly increased police attention supplemented by private security hired by the local Business Improvement District.

There is an emphasis upon issuing citations that turn into bench warrants and other forms of criminal charges.

Laws are passed against activities, such as sleeping, in which the poor are likely to engage.

And there are campsite clearances, performed for the good of those who have nowhere else to go.

And the human services community, with some exceptions, is cowed into submission.

At some point, they go after the advocates themselves. Most service providers are restrained by the fact that their funding comes from the city. Those who stand up are eventually subjected to delegitimation tactics, mean-spirited press attacks, and whisper campaigns directed toward major funders.

In other words, it's war. War on the poor. And war on those who side with them.

1 comment:

Bruce Triggs said...

Wow, it's just like the '80's; we'll reform the mental health system by closing the hospitals (which were pits). But then we'll never fund the promissed replacement services to support people in the community. Hey! Create homelessness!

Now they cut funding for band-aid emergency services (shelters, which are pits), and then don't fund permanent housing either! Wow, we've learned from the past.

Let's call this a ten year (or twenty, or thirty so there's no questions for a while) plan to end... homeless services?

Somehow I'm reminded of saint Ronald Reagan's speech supporting George Bush Sr's 1988 nomination at the Republican National Convention. I actually heard this live on the radio, and I'm glad I was stationary at the time. After a long list of great things he took responsibility for, he topped it off with, "Facts are stupid things."

Well that about summed it up for me. And now his offspring are here to tell us how to end homelessness. They cannot be trusted, so what do we do instead? How do we build power? What do we do with it?