Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Studies in Surrealism

We were going to have a big thing at City Hall yesterday, but we called it off. Over the few weeks we had to organize — and with the Washington State Coalition for the Homeless Conference beginning today — turn out just wasn't going to be impressive. And we are tired. We decided instead to focus on gathering strength. So today, we felt like we needed to show the flag. There was a meeting of Tim Burgess' Public Safety and Human Services Committee at two with a ten minute window for public testimony. The rally would of been at noon. We decided to show up with donut shaped helium balloons dressed up as the loopholes in the policy and to leaflet with mock camping citations.

As Rachael and Natalie left Real Change to walk to city hall, the loophole balloons — which were fatter and had smaller holes than we'd imagined — looked like a brightly colored bouquet of hemorrhoids floating down Second Ave.

There was a motley crew of about a dozen RCOPers there when the hearing started. Most of us were of the certifiably poor persuasion, had been fighting these sweeps for months, and weren't in a mood for any shit. Before the hearing, we stopped to drop off a "letter" signed by the delegation. I think this was Anitra's idea, inspired by her years with SHARE/WHEEL. Ten people sign a leaflet, and you drop it off to the Mayor's receptionist just as if anyone gave a shit. I didn't sign it, but going up to the Mayor's sounded like fun.

As we came off the seventh floor elevator and turned right, we were greeted by an official photo of Greg looking ten years younger and 80 pounds lighter. "Look," I said too loudly. "A picture of Greg when he wasn't fat." Our poorly dressed crowd milled amusedly. The receptionist faked intense concern with her computer monitor.

I never noticed what a fortess Greg's office is before. I've continued to visualize the old City Hall office, even though I had lunch with him once here. The view is OK, but the furniture's utilitarian. It's like a waiting area in a really nice prison. There's a receptionist behind glass. I presume it's bullet proof. There was a security guard hanging around behind her. No one was getting past the sterile lobby with the view without permission.

We organized ourselves to decide who was going to hand over the signed leaflet. Or they did. I wasn't paying much attention. I heard Natalie ask whether The Mayor was available. She was informed he was not.

"Hmmm," she said. "It sure seems like he's gone a lot."

We did a group photo. It was the best part of the visit. Then it was off to the hearing room. Earlier, we'd decided that Seattle's City Hall, like our space needle, is based on a 1950s futurist aesthetic. It's a great setting for a cheap sci-fi movie, where all the pod people are well-paid slaves to the Vulcan overlords..

We all signed up to testify, assuming that with ten minutes for testimony, we'd be asked to have one or two people speak for the group. Tim Burgess came out to say hi and we shook hands. The light off his high bald forehead was preternaturally bright. My mind grew instantly curious. Is this extreme exfoliation? Does he wax the goddamn thing? Why are rich people always so shiny? I thought about asking, but didn't want to ruin the warm vibe.

This, clearly, is a cheap shot. For myself, it was the Mother of all Bad Hair Days. The thing on top of my head had died sometime last week and was beginning to smell.

There was only one person who wasn't us there to testify. Burgess, Herrell, and Licata were in attendance. The other guy went first. He was wearing a bright lycra biking get-up that showed his deeply cut narcissist pecs to maximum advantage.

"Here is my proposal for what to do with all the drug dealers," he said. "I believe it offers the best use of our tax dollars. The first time, someone is arrested for dealing, see if he's doing it for drugs or to make a profit, and if it's for drugs, offer treatment. The second time, they can get treatment again. The third time, give them a choice between jail and a hundred bucks and a bus ticket out of town. The fourth time, euthanization. This is the best way to leverage tax dollars. This problem is costing beau coup money."

Wow. The moron knows French. He's new to the downtown Shangri-la and just realized he'd be even better off if all the fucked up poor were dead. Thanks for sharing.

Then it was our turn. Tim Burgess allowed everyone a turn, and then asked if anyone who wasn't signed wanted to speak. I wasn't planning on it, but the invitation was there.

My voice was shaky. I was surprised how mad I was. We're all so sick of pointing out the obvious and getting the big brush off from unaccountable power. I was also running on a few hours' sleep. I felt like a big exposed nerve.
"Protocols that are supposed to exist, at least in part, to offer protection and services to campers, but exclude the majority of those campers from protection with huge loopholes, are illegitimate. Protocols on homeless camping that were formed without consulting those most affected, homeless people, and stonewalled advocates from policy formation, are illegitimate."
That was all. Others had said plenty. Anitra said the Ten Year Plan, which doesn't track affordable housing loss or deal with the obvious reality of increasing homelessness is a mockery of the idea of ending homelessness. A woman I don't know said that lots of people she knows are homeless, and they could do a better job of running things than the people up front. Mike Smith, who is basically the Steven Hawking of poor people's organizing, rolled his chair up to say he doesn't understand how the City can chase people around when there isn't enough housing or shelter. Ray Murphy said these people aren't criminals, but they're being criminalized. Revel spoke of the convoluted logic employed to support "a radical trend by government to make homelessness less visible." Others spoke as well. I'm ADHD. Sometimes I drift.

How many ADHD people does it take to screw in a light bulb? I dunno. How many? Do you think the Mariners will make it to the playoffs.

Burgess graciously thanked us for our testimony, and then everyone went off to deliver the hemorrhoids while I remained to watch Acting Human Services Director Alan Painter and some other City employees brief the committee on the Strategic Investment Plan. This is the document that outlines funding priorities. It's all very outcomes based, as is the trend.

If you don't have a Masters in public administration, forget about keeping up with this crowd.

Disturbingly, Burgess asked Painter whether Human Service providers would have to wait until September to learn about cuts to their budgets, or whether some earlier notice could be given to allow more time to explore the richly available alternatives?

Painter patiently explained that advocates were well aware of the City's budget projections, and would be making their case as to why their programs should remain a priority. Score one for Alan.

At another point Burgess asked why we only have aggregate data on homeless usage of services. We should be able, he said, to individually track their successes and failures. Both Painter and Licata tried to explain the long history on this locally, but Burgess remained convinced that truth lies in drilling ever inward into greater mountains of data.

Wouldn't want to look outward would we? No. Instead we'll put the fucked up poor under a microscope where we can examine each and every poor decision in excruciating detail. Commissions will be convened to examine the data.

Licata said something about the invasion of poor people's privacy at a level the middle-class would never stand for and asked where the evidence was that the need for emergency shelter is at all shrinking. "Is there a means to assess the larger picture?"

What an intriguing idea. I love Nick for raising the point, but tracking affordable housing loss and growing misery isn't really scientific enough for this crowd. Governing Board people like Blake Nordstrom, as Bill Block never tires of saying, want to see hard data and bottom line outcomes. And they're not interested in hearing a bunch of commie shit about growing inequality, deepening poverty, and speculation-driven affordable housing loss.

But Bill never says that last part.

After this fascinating briefing of the clueless new Instant-Fucking-Expert on all things homeless (who just became the CEHKC's newest Governing Board member), we were treated to Painter, Bill Block, and the Office of Housing's Bill Rumpf and their "the Ten Year Plan is working" floor show.

Housing First is working, Bill said, because 1,450 new units have been created since the Plan began three years ago, and "an equal number" is in the pipeline.

How reassuring. The 950 units produced annually goal is on track with 50 units to spare. Never mind that half these 1,450 units were "in the pipeline" before the plan ever began and the state of the other 1,450 units now in this "pipeline" is murky at best.

The looseness of these numbers should make a tough business guy like Blake Nordstrom cringe in shame. For people who have such a hard on for data, this sort of vagueness is unbecoming at best.

But if the housing goals are being met, the cuts to shelter will come. That's the logic of the plan. Take from here and put it there because there ain't shit, really, coming from anywhere else.

I've heard enough of Bill's Ten Year Plan rap to almost be able to give it myself. I found it frightening that his brief of Ten Year Plan goals and strategy to the new human services chair and latest member of his governing board differed insubstantially from what he'd say to a group of church folks or college students. Maybe he's assuming Burgess didn't read his Governing Board welcome packet.

There was some obligatory genuflection to the 1811 Eastlake program that, with its 75 units for chronic alcoholics, is the big success that proves the plan is working, and the briefing drew to a tedious close.

Afterwards, it struck me that worlds had collided that day, only to bounce off of each other harmlessly. We got our fifteen minutes. And then the shiny people who run things in a vacuum reassured themselves that everything is fine, and that we are, in fact, totally loony tunes, taking "easy pot shots," as Burgess once put it, at a reality we don't understand.
"I'm fine with it," said Councilman Tim Burgess, who heads the council's Public Safety, Human Services & Education Committee. "I understand those objections but ... it reflects a balance between providing services and shelter while also maintaining the safety of our neighborhoods."

"To suggest that these protocols are some draconian measure to get at the homeless or something like that is just not correct," he said.

"It's easy to take shots at this encampment policy and lose sight of the fact that, from an overall perspective, Seattle does more to help the homeless and prevent homelessness than any city in the region. And, frankly, I'm quite proud of that."

There are unspoken rules that allow this parallel universe of bureaucratized planning to burble happily along, impervious to the growing misery in our streets, and I haven't figured them out yet. It has something to do with embracing an artificially circumscribed logic and hanging on to your mantra for dear life. As long as other powerful people embrace the same logic, you'll always be among friends.

Our testimony had approximately the impact of an errant nerf ball, but I'm glad we came. It's good to know what you're up against.


Nick Mele said...

I'm just a guy up in Bellingham with about 15 years experience walking with poor people in major and now minor urban areas, and you are an inspiration to me. Just keep it up, telling it like it is. This post caused me all sorts of flashbacks to my own encounters with councils, commissions and the like.

Bill said...

from Yakima/State Coalition conference: Thanks for the update on Seattle's process while many of us are away. Lots of workshops here assessing what Ten Year Plans are accomplishing. Of course the spin dominates. Surprised to hear the King County Plan is on target; that is not what the Governing Board was told April 23rd. That report said we are halfway to annual goal. Of course, that still does not count losses. To answer your question about the Mariners, they would win the pennant if they onyl had to count wins and not losses. It is in the rarified air of spin that people get to play games with people's lives. Thursday at this conference there's a 3 hour session on "Ending Homelessness" meant to address that he-who-must-not-be-named-won't-say. I had one bright idea. Everyone keeps saying we have too little money. Yet we're a rich state. We give tax breaks equalling massive sums for businesses to do business here. That is, in fact, income to them. I like all others live in the world where all income is meant to be taxed. MY proposal is give those earning such tax favors a choice: 1)surrender the tax break given your business, or 2) keep your tax break and pay a 20% tax on it. Voila (I know french too). New money!!! Lots and lots of new money because we have lots and lots of tax breaks. Several of us agreed to write and submit this legislation. Why keep up the skirmishes with local bonzos who think their city is the creme-de-la-creme of good guys. Let's go after the real thieves. Sunny, 70 degrees, nice to know sun still exists.

Sally said...

Jeff Reifman in Crosscut calculates that by selling its licensed products from Nevada (no B&O tax)instead of Washington, Microsoft's saved more than $48 million annually, cumulatively more than HALF A BILLION DOLLARS in the last 11 years, that should have gone to WA state coffers and thence -- just possibly -- to our needs.

The Tax Fairness Coalition has been trying to do something about corporate tax breaks for years. I don't know why that hasn't worked. Oh yes, I forgot -- Microsoft uses some of that money it saves to pay lobbyists.