Saturday, April 12, 2008

Bad News Always Gets Buried

Anybody who's been around for more than ten minutes knows governments release bad news late on Friday. The story then runs on Saturday, when newspaper circulation is lowest. This is best accomplished by releasing a blizzard of paper at the last possible moment. A brief press release and "fact sheet" are helpfully provided to frame things for the reporter in a hurry.

We thought the City was going to do this last week. Reporters were expecting the new protocols on Friday when the City unexpectedly postponed the release. The Mayor's executive order, which includes the procedures document, was filed with the City Clerk the following Monday. The 20-page administrative rules document, which backs up the procedures wth more detailed legalese, were signed by all the affected department heads on Monday as well.

So, why then did they wait until four days later and at the last minute on Friday to release the news? Sharon Chan at the Seattle Times had a paper copy at 2:00 pm, as promised by the City Friday morning, but had no electronic copy to forward. No one else had the documents until the City uploaded them to their website an hour and a half later, which left advocates less than an hour to absorb forty-some detailed pages of material and formulate a response.

How's this for a process? Create a unilateral policy with a two week period for public comment. Respond to the comments with some concessions, but then put a whole bunch of other bad stuff in there that no one's ever seen before. Release the policy at the close of a Friday and call it a done deal.

None of the bad news was in the press release. This spoke of meeting the "thoughtful" concerns offered by advocates with another day's notice, additional time for outreach, and twenty new shelter beds at the Compass Center with improved policies on storage of possessions.

That doesn't sound so bad. One could even say this was a win for advocacy. Their opening position, after all, was that storage was out of the question, that 48 hours was sufficient time for outreach, and that there would be no new shelter.

It seems like they've come a long way.

The new stuff, however, makes it even worse than before. Here's the crap that floats to the top.

The Threshold of Three
A distinction is drawn between "unauthorized camping" and an "unauthorized encampment," which means three or more people within 300 feet of each other. The protocols apply to "unauthorized encampments." Yet, all camping on public property is illegal and subject to issuance of an exclusion notice or arrest for criminal trespass. This means that the procedures don't apply to campers who are not in groups. The City could have evicted Treeman and destroyed his property with no notice and have been in compliance with their policy. This is very bad, and it is new.

The Recurring Encampment Clause

This is also new, and very, very bad. Once a site is cleared, it will be monitored for a recurrence of campsites. Should an area have three recurrences within a period of 60 days, it will be placed into a new status, where no outreach or notice is required before issuing citations and destroying belongings. It is not hard to imagine a scenario where, within six months, the majority of key sites have been cleared for automatic removal without notice.

Any campsite that is identified either by a city employee or by a call to the Community Service Bureau is immediately slated for removal. The issue of whether any problems are being caused is immaterial.

One Citation = Vulnerability to Arrest

Anyone who has already received one citation anywhere has no immunity to arrest when trying to retrieve possessions or access outreach services from a site that has been slated for removal. Also new. Also very bad.

So, lets review. Less than three campers and the City has no responsibility to warn, hold belongings, or help. More than three documented instances of encampments within 60 days, and the City can also do whatever it likes.

So sleeping on your own means you have no rights. But after a while, sleeping in groups probably means you have no rights either. And, if you have received one citation already, you have no rights. Do you see where this is going?

This is a compassionate policy designed to help people? I don't think so. This is a lawyerly means of criminalizing survival while evading the responsibility we have to offer help. Were it possible for me to be more disgusted with the Nickels Administration, this would have done it.

Both the Seattle Times and Seattle PI put up brief stories on their websites Friday afternoon that merely summarized the City press release, but Sharon Chan and Angela Galloway offered good ink to advocates in their Saturday stories. Sharon's is actually quite good, and I'm not just saying that because she quotes me. Galloway uncritically accepts Marty McComber's line that nothing's changed, this has been happening for 15 years, and we're just making life better for homeless people.

It's an appalling lie, but a very useful one.

Both stories accepted the City's frame, as the largely supine dailies almost always do. "City listens to advocates and softens policy." Galloway's lead quote is McInturff saying how "delighted" she is. Few of us share her enthusiasm.

A more accurate frame would be "City sneaks broadly undermining loopholes into final protocols in preparation for all out war on poor."

1 comment:

Bill said...

You are right, Tim, and all of us wish you weren't, of course. It is a Friday massacre. It is lying. It is shameful. What you report as being in the approved policy indeed was absent from the "Press release." So as Ms. McInturff sails into the sunset she can be remembered for being the good soldier for the war mayor right up to the last breath. This Mayor's desire is not endfing homelessness, but ending the homeless. I heard he is pictured on the NAEH site taking glory for his end homelessness policies. Time to reveal nationally this Mayor has no clothes.