Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Homeless sweeps inhumane

People experiencing homelessness are scattered throughout downtown tonight after homeless sweeps. I spent the evening walking around talking to people and I was moved to write this long-winded piece.

Homeless advocates for decades have argued that sweeping people experiencing homelessness is inhumane. Reagonomics sent millions of people living in poverty onto the street in the 1980's and it's remained that way. With the rise in homelessness came a myriad of laws that have been used against people on the streets, including the camping ordinance and the sit-lie laws. Laws that already existed like trespassing; urinating in public, and public drunkenness became tools to use against an underclass of people living on the streets.

For years in urban America the shelter model was used as a way to minimize the rise in homelessness, and continues today. The thinking was that you could shelter someone and try to connect individuals to the outside world – services, a job, etc. This model created an industry of warehousing people.

The new thinking is to use a model called housing first. You first house an individual and then you connect them with the outside world. Thus, the 10-year plan to end “chronic” homelessness. Chronic means that you’ve been labeled by people in power as being a public nuisance if you have been homeless for more than a year, therefore you receive priority in getting housed. The federal government has set up guidelines in which local governments have to comply with to get funding to house the chronic. Portland is being regarded as one of the most successful cities in the country after claiming to house nearly 70% of the individuals labeled as such, with a 40% decrease in overall homelessness.

Here’s the problem. Portland is on the upswing of the 10-year plan to end homelessness. Providers are settling into the new system and getting results. Old systems, like the shelter model is looked at as being archaic, while the new housing first model is being implemented. Problem is there’s a transition and we as a city are moving way to fast for several different reasons.

In the rush to claim success we are pigeon holing ourselves into a no win situation that is resulting in the same old business – sweeps of homeless people, sit-lie laws and targeting poor people as being public nuisances. One side (the police, shelter providers) want more shelter space for people they move along, the other side doesn't think that's necessary because of the housing first model, but has stood in silence while people are criminalized for being homeless.

In the move to house people through the 10-year plan to end homelessness we have seen great strides. Erik Sten and the BHCD are kicking tail, maximizing resources, implementing great programs and working with harm reduction models that meet poor people on an even keel. The Affordable Housing movement is also breaking ground with developing millions of dollars of funding streams we haven’t had.

Here’s where the rubber hits the road. The Portland Police and the Portland Business Alliance want homeless people gone, yesterday.

The PBA just struck a deal that exchanged our civil rights for a hand-full of benches. The bathrooms are heading for a debacle and there’s no day access center in sight. Not to mention several other cities are jumping on the bandwagon and the SAFE committee is being used as a political football for being one of the only accomplishments the mayor’s office has pulled off lately. Not to mention it is yet another tool for private security downtown to do whatever they want and not answer to anyone.

The police are caught in a no win circumstance. They are on the front lines of dealing with people on the beat. There’s been violence on the street; the neighborhoods and businesses are throwing a fit because Old Town/Chinatown is looking like a fallout zone of addicts, people experiencing mental health, people on the streets and dealers – which all get lumped into one even though if you do this work you know the difference. Not to mention, one of the places that was swept today was a social service agency (a shelter), further polarizing people on the streets and the idea that we have poverty industry that doesn’t get to the heart of the problem – probably because it’s true.

The longer I do this work, the more I’m convinced that we can never have a social justice movement in this town from the ground up if social service providers are more worried about their own agendas than the human rights and dignity of the people we serve. Dignity Village is the only example we can point to when a group of people had the self-determination to stand up and say, no, we have a right to exist. That kind of organizing on the ground is sorely missing and no non-profit can spearhead this kind of movement in an age of federal guidelines and fundraising goals.

Oppression is oppression. And asking someone without a home to move from a sidewalk or camp with no other alternatives, weather it’s by the boot, or with a smile and a warning, is still a human rights violation.

So where to begin? First off, the half a million dollars or more we spend on private security for poor people in downtown would be better spent by hiring outreach workers and providing housing. We don’t need armed guards patrolling our streets. We need community organizers, and mental health workers - people that can speak the language and individuals that can police themselves working with the poor. This is not a slam on the police. One of the things I constantly hear in my conversations with police are they are tired of being a social workers. So let’s hire more social (outreach) workers, not spend more money on faulty programs that criminalize the poor.

In the seven years I’ve been doing this work no program developed through community policing – alcove abatement projects, fencing off bridges or not allowing people to sleep on the I-405 corridor has solved any of the problems of homelessness. We still have thousands of people sleeping on our streets, many in downtown, unwanted and pushed around like cattle depending on what season it is. Sweeps are not an answer. Curfews are not the answer. Drug-free zones are not the answer. Shelters are not the answer. People and a shifting of the resources we have are the answer.

And this gets back to the 10-year plan to end homelessness. While the federal government is calling the shots concerning funding, they are not calling the shots on how we create political will to end homelessness and treat people on the streets. If we as a community continue to sweep the problem of homelessness from one neighborhood to the next we will undercut any real effort to mobilize the public and to create trust in having people come inside. Where are all the people going to go tonight? They're going to go to surrounding neighborhoods, walk the streets with no sleep and be told in the morning they can’t sit or lie on a sidewalk. They will become prey to the very system that claims to be helping them.

I was appalled tonight to see so many people just wandering around Old Town/Chinatown with no place to go to rest. I walked around tonight talking to at least two-dozen people that said they didn’t know where to go to sleep tonight. People are scared, tired and weak.

Community policing is not a successful model when you take away the rights of the individual citizens by creating more laws. It’s a success when we can work together to solve problems that present themselves to the community.

The sweeps this morning and tonight by the City of Portland are inhumane and something we as a progressive city should be ashamed of.


helixcat said...

Israel, your clarion commentary cries out to be heard across Portland, especially by those with the ability and clout to make a difference. I chuckled when you observed that Old Town/Chinatown is coming to ressemble a "fallout zone". It's sad but true. The sad part is that many of the folks on the street have no where else to go and are often prey for the drug dealers and the transiently housed, who'd rather be anywhere than the tiny featureless rooms that oppressively circumscribe their lives.

Like you, I see a great injustice being perpetrated against homeless people downtown by sweeping them from their habitual haunts. There really is nowhere else for them to go. The parks are off-limits. The neighborhoods and suburbs don't want them. The only other option, if you could call it that, and a dire one to boot, is jail. Yet, even those are full.

On the other hand, I am distressed that Old Town ressembles a "fallout zone". Although I well understand your distaste for the pretentiousness of the Pearl District - the newly christened downtown playground for affluent Portlanders, I find my early morning walks though the Pearl to be a refreshing retreat for my soul - so close yet so very far away from the grime and crime of Old Town. In an ideal world, there should never be any cause to have "fallout zones" occupied by those whom society has forgotten or rejected. Unfortunately, our world is far from ideal.

Not having lived on the streets long enough to fully appreciate the humanity of my fellow street denizens, I still find it discomforting to walk past clusters of ill-clothed, weather-beaten people standing, sitting, sleeping, drinking, smoking, and soliciting in places that were not meant to be gathering spaces. Neither do I like the idea of public parks being taken over by people with no other place to go.

Thus the problem. I, as much as anyone, would love to be able to enjoy a downtown without the overwhelming presence of despair. Don't get me wrong. It's not the presence of street people to which I object. It's the unfortunate (and criminal) concentration of "unwanted" people that I find objectionable. It's the criminal concentration of disenfranchised human beings in the proximity of the basic services upon which their survival depends that I object to. So, my question is this - how can we meaningfully address the desperate convergence of people with real needs, a convergence which is effectively overwhelming the capacity of downtown and Old Town to absorb it?

Do we condemn Old Town to be a permanent "fallout zone" until such time that we can muster the necessary resources to genuinely engage our street homeless in the process of reclaiming their lives?

I hope not.

I wish that a downtown Day Resource Center for homeless people were available, today. I wish that Portland would swallow the bullet and build adequate shelter capacity for those who need it now. I wish that there was enough housing stock to enable a "housing first" approach to serve everyone, and not just the chronically homeless. I wish that we could eliminate poverty and homelessness right now!

I also wish that homeless advocates, homelessness service providers, the Portland Business Alliance, and City Hall could be forced into dialogue at a suitable venue where, like jurors, no one is allowed to leave until a shared decision is reached which humanely dissolves the "fallout zones" plaguing Old Town and downtown.

Patrick said...

Israel, Helixcat,
if we are going to be building buildings, dont waste my money on a day access center untill we have build enough housing for every man woman and child in the city. there are not enough housing units (even if they were zoned correctly for 0-30% of median income) for everyone to have a place to stay.
sadly, the work would not be that hard if everyone could be convinced to pitch in and help. the problem is that no one wants community anymore, they are to happy with their mocha/latte/wi-fi/cellular/laptop/suv world to worry about anyone else.

Chuck said...

Great post.

Rev. Chuck Currie

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