Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sweeps of Compassion?

When the Mayor appeared on KUOW’s Weekday last Monday, Greg Nickels had just given the Dalai Lama the key to the City and taken a brave stance in favor of compassion. While the show was supposed to be about Key Arena and the new grocery bag tax, the convergence of the Dalai Lama and the new protocols begged for comment.

Host Steve Sher pressed him hard.

Why only twenty new beds when your own staff says there are 100-300 homeless campers? Couldn’t Tent Cities be a solution? Isn’t this a shortsighted quick fix? Aren’t these policies punitive? Where’s the compassion?

Unfortunately, Sher chose to confront Nickels with a statement I made to Sharon Chan at the PI after the City blindsided us with the release of the protocols.

The City released paper versions of the protocols to the press two hours before making them available to advocates. Chan was scheduled to call me at 4 pm. The documents were released at 3:30.

Taking no chances, they buried the story in Saturday’s paper with a late-Friday press release.

It took me about ten minutes to find the stuff they were hiding. All camping on public property was illegal and subject to citation or arrest. No surprises there. This was in the draft and no one expected that to change.

But the City was now making a distinction between “unauthorized camping” and “unauthorized encampments.” Camping is to erect any equipment that a reasonable person would assume is for the purposes of remaining when the property is closed. An encampment is three or more structures, any of which is within three-hundred feet of the next.

In a lawyerly bit of work that few people would catch in a quick reading, the protocols are written to apply to “unauthorized encampments.” Yet all camping is illegal.

So, do those who are camped alone or in pairs rate notification, outreach, and access to shelter and services? The answer would appear to be no.

Also deeply troubling is the new recurring encampment clause, which says that sites will be monitored once cleared, and if encampments re-occur three times within a 60-day period, permanent signs will be posted and belongings will be cleared without notice.

Given that just twenty new shelter beds have been provided, and more than 2,600 people were found outside during last year’s count, one can reasonably assume that encampments are likely to return.

Call me cynical, but it’s easy to imagine a scenario where within 6 months, every key site in the City will have reached this status.

There is also a provision in the procedures document that says anyone who already has a citation will not have the right to enter posted areas to retrieve possessions. The more expansive administrative rules document — which details the legal framework behind the procedures — clarifies that the previous citation rule is site-specific.

But I didn’t get that far before the press called. Everyone in the world, it seems, was trying to get the twenty-megabyte document from the City server at the same time, and the download was like molasses in January. There was no time for detailed legal analysis, and none of this was in the easily digested press release.

So when Sher asked if something I overstated to the PI was true, I was surprised to hear Greg say he didn’t know.
Sher: There’s a little bit of punitiveness in this though. If people camping on a site have been cited elsewhere they won’t get the 72 hours notice to vacate and they won’t be allowed to retrieve their belongings? Is that the rule? Is that true? That’s what Tim Harris, the Executive Director of Real Change said. He was looking at the rules and said, still seems to be punitive?

Nickels: Well, the intent is not to be punitive. The intent is for people to understand what those rules are and to provide the help that they need to be able to avoid this kind of, uh, inappropriate shelter.

Sher: But is that true though? That if they’ve been cited somewhere else they won’t get the 72 hours notice? They don’t get their belongings?

Nickels: You know, Um, Um, I don’t know.

Sher: Well, He’s quoting your rules. So, if it’s wrong you’ll tell me.

Nickels: There you go.
Then Nickels goes on to promise that everyone in the encampments “who needs services will get services” and blow smoke about how everything will be great once we’ve ended homelessness.

I was wrong, but it was still a sweet moment.

If the new policies on campsite removal were limited to the good news in the City’s press release — expanded notification time, contracted (but underfunded) outreach services, better provisions for storage, and twenty new shelter beds — we’d have grudgingly declared victory and moved on to focusing on oversight and accountability.

The Mayor’s Office has fatally undermined the legitimacy of the new protocols by sneaking in provisions that exempt those camped alone, in pairs, and, eventually, in any of the City’s key sites, from the rules. The rules are that much of the time there will be no rules.

It should surprise no one that a policy that began in secret would, after six months of process, arrive at a self-justifying set of protocols in which the secret exceptions are hidden in plain sight.

There are no provisions for independent oversight of any sort.

This brings us back to exactly where we started, with the City removing most encampments without notification, services, or storage of belongings, operating without accountability, and lying to cover their tracks.

This is not acceptable. A compassionate policy on campsite removals requires the following:

The hidden exceptions must be challenged and removed from these protocols. Otherwise, the three-camp definition and the recurring encampment clause will render the policies meaningless by greatly limiting their application.

Outreach needs to be consistent, relationship-based, and adequately funded. The zero-tolerance for campsites approach outlined in these protocols undermines the capacity to do real outreach by needlessly chasing those who are often already resistant to services from place to place.

The City Council needs to press hard for oversight and accountability. We should know how many people have been removed from encampments and where they went. If the exceptions that exist were applied, this information would offer a very limited picture of what's really happening.

While strategies and tactics still need to be worked out, this much is clear. These protocols are unacceptable.

It’s always embarrassing to get something wrong in public. I find solace in knowing Mayor Nickels gets stuff wrong too. In the space of twenty minutes on KUOW, he said he didn’t know what was in his own policies, that there was enough shelter for everyone, that homelessness would be solved by 2014, and that the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness was “on-track.”

Were these the mis-statements of a bumbling, under-informed public servant who goes on the radio without having his facts straight? Or were these the calculated and often-repeated lies routinely offered by power to justify the unjustifiable?

While you’re deciding, we at Real Change will be organizing a response. We hope you will join us.


susie said...

Tim, the thing I noticed right away was the definition of "encampment" -- any three tents within 300 feet of each other.

300 feet?! That's the length of a football field. That is really stretching the definition of encampment, I would say.

Pastor Rick said...

I would like to see the Mayor wedge himself into a sleeping bag downtown for a night and experience what survival is like for homeless folks. Grr.

Squirrelman for Mayor!

Anonymous said...

Did anyone else notice that valid, government issued, photo ID is required in order for a person to retrieve their possessions from storage after they're confiscated in a sweep? This requirement reveals, at best, ignorance of one of most common problems among homeless people, and that's the loss of ID and lack of money and other resources necessary to get it replaced. Property must be claimed within 60 days.
And why send in the social workers to refer people to services that either don't exist or that people don't need? It's another attempt to place the blame on the individual instead of the system. Use the money for emergency shelter instead.

Tim Harris said...

Yes. And that the storage facility is 3/4s of a mile from the nearest bus stop, and that their handout only offers driving directions?

This is what happens when policy gets formulated by out of touch bureaucrats who couldn't really give a flying crap about homeless people, much less risk any loss of complete control by actually listening to the people they say they want to help.

"Uta" Urban said...

I see some pursuable legal ADA disability issues.

One concerns the removal of people's prescriptions and assistive walking devices (canes, wheelchairs,pulmonary and cardiac medicine, glasses)to a site that's so remote it would not be considered reasonably accessible to disabled homeless owners of such items.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if anyone in the Mayor's Office reads this blog.

Not exactly a way to start a constructive dialogue.

Tim Harris said...

A "constructive dialogue" with the Mayor's office? What planet are you on, or haven't you been paying attention?

Anonymous said...

I'm on planet Earth, where adults solve problems by cooperating.

Tim Harris said...

Would you cooperate with a freight train about to run you over?

Sally said...

I certainly hope someone in the Mayor's office reads this blog, Anonymous. How else would they know what their stupid policy actually says, since they don't read it?

Besides, dialogue is over -- public comment period is closed, meetings are done with. Do you think they're sitting there waiting for us to phone them to discuss this? This is an administrative policy they are unilaterally carrying out, not a point offered for consensus.

They don't care. We do. Thus it's up to us (as, yes, adults, who recognize this isn't some typical Seattle "constructive dialogue" game) to take action.

Anonymous said...

We all have to work within limits:

By the way, did you know that Pat Mcinturff retired yesterday (4-16-08)?

Hey, you accomplished something!

Tim Harris said...

Sometimes, Anonymous, I really wonder who the hell you are, and why you're so committed to being such a fearful sold-out, accommodationist, smug, self-satisfied nitwit. You must be one of those people who thinks the way to end homelessness is to kiss up to power. Nice analysis. Good luck with that.

Anonymous said...

Just a concerned citizen looking for answers.

Anger and profanity doesn't help.

Tim Harris said...

Anger helps. Profanity just feels good.

Anonymous said...

So, how would you end homelessness?

At least bring it down to pre-Reagan numbers.

Tim Harris said...

The same way we ended it after world war II. With policies that reduce inequality, meet the needs of the broad middle class as well as the poor, and distribute resources more equitably in the service of the common good. I write about this frequently. The Mitch Snyder lecture in the top posts list is a pretty good summary.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you're talking about a revolution.

Good luck with that.

Sally said...

Useless though this continuing conversation with you is, Anonymous, still have to say it's odd that you reply to Tim's hope for more humane policies with the comment, "Sounds like a revolution." Maybe that says it all.

Anonymous said...

Tim, thanks for keeping us up to date on this.
Linde Knighton

Michael G. said...

As regards Anonymous, When the powers that purport to have our societies best interests well in hand only pretend to listen to people in this 'so called democracy' and merely mouth platitudes and empty promises and we (the people) are left with no tools but ANGER we had goddamn well better use it, and YES A BIT OF PROFANITY is in order as well. A revolution would be a Damn good idea. If the smug self=satisfied liberals in this nation ever put down their Soma prescriptions and wake up we might have one. If this seems aimed at you Anonymous, it is. sincerely, Michael G.