I went out into Cherry Street by City Hall yesterday after camping out there with 150 of us on Sunday and waited with fourteen others to be arrested. It had been a long time coming. Simultaneous to the arrest, we flooded the Mayor's office with calls. The press coverage was huge and it was favorable. We need to do more. This is a beginning. Not an end.
Until last year, the City of Seattle would clear encampments after a pattern of neighborhood complaint identified problems needing to be addressed. It didn't happen all that often. The shelters are full and thousands remain outside. Everyone who knows anything about homelessness in Seattle knows this. The policy, therefore, had been to mostly look the other way.
Then came the condo boom. Housing costs in Seattle rose dramatically and cheap housing became even more scarce. The rental vacancy rate went below 4%. Those who lacked decent credit, had felonies, or had poor rental histories were basically fucked. They couldn't get in. The numbers on the streets rose by at least 15%. Then came the sweeps.
We started hearing whispers about a zero-tolerance policy in the Mayor's office on homeless encampments last summer, but couldn't get any on the record confirmation. Finally, a public disclosure request offered the proof we were looking for. There was the acknowledgment in black and white that policy had shifted, and a list of key sites for proactive clearances. Public employees were required to report any camp they saw, and any single report from anyone was enough to trigger a clearance. Horror stories began to surface. Homeless people complained widely of losing their stuff and of radically increased harassment.
Once we broke the story, the shit really hit the fan. The City launched a media offensive to justify their actions, focusing on filth, criminality, and drug use. Most of the media, for a time, obliged. The City recognized that their asses were hanging out all over the place and retreated for awhile to assess and address their various legal vulnerabilities.
Now, there's a set of protocols that pretends to offer help to people, yet shelter turn-aways are at a record high. They hired a couple of outreach workers, and give notice before they throw people's stuff away. They added twenty shelter beds. For 2,633 people counted surviving outside. And those were just the ones who were found. Twenty beds.
Throughout all of this, advocates were stonewalled and kept in the dark. The Mayor and his staff meet all questions with the same empty, dehumanizing mantra. We spend $40 million a year on housing and homelessness. We have a ten year plan to end homelessness. Homeless campsites are illegal, filled with debris, feces, bottles of urine, and hypodermic needles. People are being offered services.
The City sells the protocols as consistent and humane, and speaks of how liberal they are. Yet two huge loopholes were added after the public comment period that deny protections to the homeless in the majority of cases. Camps of less than three structures are unprotected. Camps that reoccur in areas that are cleared will also be denied protection. The Queen Anne sites cleared a week ago have already been reposted for repeat clearance. Within six months, it appears, no outreach, notification, or storage of possessions will be required most of the time.
The sites where homeless people frequently camp will all soon be permanently posted for immediate removal. The gloves will, once again, be off, and we'll be back to where we started, with the City doing whatever the hell they want. This isn't conspiratorial shit. This is the clear intention behind the wording of the protocols. The permanent posting strategy may not stand up to legal challenge, but it will be years before a suit is filed and a ruling made.
Meanwhile, people are being chased around and harassed. They are being driven to more remote locales, and their gear is being trashed. Their odds of survival have decreased. The stress of homelessness has radically multiplied. At Real Change, we see it everyday.
The story of organizing and committing the Civil Disobedience action at City Hall will have to wait til later. We wanted a media grand slam that was critical of the Mayor. It happened, although, as usual, print and radio were the only ones to leave the City frame behind. Both the dailies — the Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Times — were great, and got the story right. The key bit from the PI was this.
"What the mayor needs to realize is that opposition isn't going to go away, it's only going to increase," said Tim Harris, one of the event's organizers and executive director of the nonprofit activist publication Real Change. "He has to negotiate with human service advocates and homeless people to come up with a more just policy and agree to some form of accountability."The Seattle Times talked to me about four times over the course of several days, and got the story right as well. My favorite part there was ...
"We feel it's time to make the strongest statement we can, and say that we withdraw our consent from the way the city is being run," said Harris, the executive director of Real Change.But the most amusing coverage for me was the KUOW interview, which I did at 6:10 a.m. while reclining on the broad wall next to the stairs that lead up from the 4th Avenue side of the building. As I talked on my cell, I looked out over a sea of tents and sleeping bags on City Hall Plaza.
It wasn't too early. I got up at 4 when a reporter from KOMO asked for an interview and the few hours sleep I managed that night came to an end. I guess she was worried she might get scooped.
KUOW is a major NPR affiliate, and the story was repeated several times over the morning. My favorite moment here is the short sardonic laugh I offer when asked why people don't just go to shelters.
The footage of the Civil Disobedience portion of our demonstration above is by Dr. Wes Browning. More to come.