Monday, April 28, 2008

The Herons Come Home To Roost

One of our Real Change vendors once told me how she loves selling the paper in Magnolia. "All of the people are beautiful," she said. I asked what she meant and she gave me poetry. "All the men have pink skin and white hair and the most beautiful shoes you can imagine."

And, apparently, they don't want homeless people around. They might scare away the Blue Heron.

The eruption in Magnolia reported in last Saturday's Post-Intelligencer by Sanjay Bhatt isn't a surprise to us. Real Change's Cyd Gillis reported on the first of four neighborhood planning meetings concerning proposals for homeless housing at Fort Lawton three weeks prior, and the reaction wasn't much different then.

Along with neighborhood concerns over housing for Native elders and families who had experienced domestic violence coming out of transitional housing — could Girl Scouts, they asked, be assured safety while selling cookies door to door— Gillis reported that the various proposals on the table were moving past the selection process toward finalization.

United All Tribes ambitiously proposed a mixed-income housing development that includes a Native American College and 169 units of permanent housing for homeless seniors, families and single adults. DESC's proposal would have put 75 units of housing there for chronically homeless people. The watered down mix the City seems to now favor would work with United All Tribes and the YWCA to create a range of affordable housing that includes at least 66 units of housing for homeless elders and families who are leaving transitional housing.

The choice of 66 is interesting in itself. This is the number of Capehart Housing units that will revert to Discovery Park green space sometime after the last military family moves out in 2009. Councilmembers Peter Steinbrueck and Sally Clark strengthened some wimpy language in the final Capehart acquisition deal last September to ensure one-to-one replacement of the doomed housing.

Bhatt's article had numerous lovely details.
At one community meeting, some residents wondered whether homeless housing at the fort would attract wife-beaters, sex offenders and crack addicts. They rolled their eyes when city officials asserted that such housing increases property values. They worried about the impact on schools and scoffed at the idea of homeless people shopping at the closest grocery — which sells pheasant-and-rosemary pâté for $9.99 and ground coffee for up to $18 a pound.

"We're the ones who live here, and we want to have a nice, safe neighborhood to live in," Donald Raz, a King County deputy prosecutor and Magnolia resident, said later.

Like most affluent neighborhoods in Seattle, Magnolia doesn't have any housing for homeless people mainly because land is too expensive for social-service agencies to buy.

The quotes from Block and Quinn were especially interesting.

"What is it that makes homeless people different enough that they don't 'fit' in that neighborhood?" asks Bill Block, project director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, a coalition of agencies, businesses and churches. "Affluent people become homeless."
I suppose they ocassionally do. But mostly, in this economy, they become more affluent. I'm guessing that Bill's attempt to sell formerly homeless people as being just like the exfoliated folk of Magnolia went over about like a dead baby joke at a baptism. Is economic diversity so threatening we need to pretend it doesn't exist?

But the Buried Treasure Quote of the Week Award goes to Quinn.

"Fundamentally they [federal officials] understand that with homeless housing, you can't have so much out there that you can't sell the fair-market value housing," said Adrienne Quinn, director of Seattle's Office of Housing. "We're trying to achieve that balance," she said.

Did she really just say that? Did someone dose her Dasani with sodium pentathol? I mean, this is extraordinary.

Perhaps what she meant was that federal officials would not knowingly undermine property values by overly imposing homeless housing on any one community. But this is also a refreshingly honest take on the laws of supply and demand. If you provide too much housing for poor people, it undermines the market scarcity that drives up cost (or viewed from the other side, profit). It seems odd that anyone could believe we're anywhere near that point, but I guess one can never be too careful..

Is anyone surprised that Magnolia, which has fewer poor people and lower rates of charitable giving than most any neighborhood in the city, is afraid of the homeless? Given the City's recent media litany regarding homeless criminality on City public lands, we should expect reactions like theirs everywhere.

You can't stigmatize homeless people as drug addicted vectors of disease and moral decay on one day, and on the next say they're just like the top income-quintile folk of Magnolia. The cognitive dissonance will make people's heads explode.

The recent City propaganda campaign around homeless camping exploits fear that is there for the taking. Homeless people, in much of the middle-class imagination, symbolize much more than an implied absence of housing affordability. Peter Marcuse's landmark Neutralizing Homelessness essay dwells on this point. "The homeless are alienation incarnate," he says, and disturb our sense of the appropriately public and private.

Timothy Gibson, in Securing the Spectacular City, expands upon Marcuse's observation.
The spectacle of homeless citizens attending to themselves in public is disturbing in its own right. In other words, when the homeless are forced to attend to their private needs in parks, alleys, and sidewalks, public spaces begin to take on aspects of "home:" they now become places to sleep, to drink, to make love, to use the toilet, and so on. In modern bourgeois societies, this is activity "out of place." This activity inverts the distinction between public and private spaces that is fundamental to middle-class notions of citizenship and propriety. Such activities can therefore signal to urban residents the "order of things" has been unraveled—that is this place at least, things are falling apart. ...

For many urban residents, the homeless have thus become something of an urban "indicator species" for social disorder, "diagnostic of the presumed ill-health" of urban life and the need to gain control and rationalize urban public space.
The City didn't invent fear of homeless people as Other. In their quest to turn downtown Seattle into a squeaky clean vision of urban living — something akin to an upscale suburban mall but with better food and more atmosphere — they just used the tools at hand. When Magnolia gives in to irrational fear regarding potential strangers in their midst, it's a case of the Blue Herons coming home to roost.