A “new approach to withdrawals from camps” is limited by the lack of places to go

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By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, remediation crews and Parks Department employees showed up to remove the remains of a large evergreen encampment in Ballard Commons Park. From the outside, the move looked exactly like any other camp sweep – tents, furniture and household rubbish disappeared in the backs of garbage trucks as workers walked around ordering anyone else on the spot to leave. Hours later, crews erected a tall chain-link fence, identical to those that have become ubiquitous at old camp sites around town. Huge red “PARC FERMÉ” signs underlined this point: this park, once a disputed territory, has been claimed. It will remain closed for at least six months for renovations, remediation work and, as District 6 City Council member Dan Strauss said, “to allow space to breathe.”

But the removal of the Commons encampment was actually different, because for once, and contrary to what the city’s Department of Social Services has always claimed to be standard practice, almost everyone at the encampment ended up moving to a shelter or accommodation, thanks to months of work by local service providers and a hands-off approach to the city. At a press conference outside the Ballard branch library last week, Strauss announced the results of the city’s “new way to remove encampments”.

While a humane approach like the one the city took at Ballard Commons should serve as a benchmark for how the city responds to settlements in the future, its success will not be easy to replicate. This is because there are simply not enough shelter beds, permanent housing units, or housing subsidies to accommodate all of the residents of one additional large encampment, let alone the hundreds of camps in which thousands of homeless people live across the city.

Before explaining why it would be premature, and potentially harmful, to congratulate the city for having abandoned its “old” approach to the camps, it is important to understand how the approach to this camp was really different, and why it is simplistic. (and unnecessary) to refer to removing the encampment and closing the park, as just another ‘sweep’.

Usually when the city decides to take down an encampment, the Department of Social Services sends an advanced team, known as the HOPE team, to provide shelter beds and services to the people living there and to let them know. that the encampment is about to be swept away. . The HOPE team has exclusive access to certain shelter beds, which allows the city to credibly claim that it has “offered shelter” to anyone living in an encampment prior to a sweep. However, even the HOPE team is limited to the beds available, which tend to be in shelters with a higher turnover rate and fewer amenities, such as the Navigation Center in the International District. Mobility issues, behavioral health issues, and the desire to stay in a street community are common reasons people “turn down” offers of accommodation or leave the shelter after “accepting” an offer. If someone needs a wheelchair ramp or a space they can share with their partner and these amenities are not available at shelters that have open beds, the sweep will continue.

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At Commons, on the other hand, the city’s outreach partners, including REACH and Catholic Community Services, spent months getting to know the roughly 85 people living in the encampment, learning about their specific needs, and connecting them. with resources that have worked for them. More than 20% of people living at the Commons had “significant medical conditions” that many conventional shelters are not equipped to treat, including stage 4 cancer, emphysema, paralysis and seizure disorders, the week said. last Director of REACH, Chloe Gale. Eighty percent had serious behavioral health problems, including substance abuse. One of them had been the victim of gender-based violence and did not feel safe going to a shelter alone.

Eventually, outreach workers were able to find placements for almost everyone living at the Commons, working with people one on one and building trust over the months. The approach is time consuming, expensive and resource intensive, and it only works if there is sufficient shelter and housing available.

At last week’s press conference, City Councilor Strauss said that by “using a human-centered approach”, the city “gives [outreach providers] time for them to bring people in, we find and create adequate shelter and housing. And [that approach] results in people going inside rather than being moved. Strauss told a council meeting on Monday he had “started working to achieve a similar result at Lower Woodland Park”, where residents complain about a large motorhome and a tent camp. for months.

The problem – and a likely point of future friction for the city – is that the single most important factor enabling this “human-centered approach” has been the opening of dozens of new locations in tiny villages and a managed hotel. by the downtown emergency service center in North Seattle, which will provide permanent housing for dozens of people with severe and persistent behavioral health problems. These new resources, more than any outreach strategy or ‘new approach’ to the city, got people moving, not from park to park, but to places they really wanted to go. . NOTNow that these shelters and housing units are occupied, the city will return to the status quo, at least until more shelters and housing are available.

Part of the problem preventing the city from taking an individual approach to settlements is that Seattle does not take into account the individual needs of homeless people; It is also that the city has never taken seriously the need to finance and build shelters and housing that meet those needs at the level that will be necessary to make a visible breach in homelessness. That is changing, slowly – as Strauss noted last week, 2021 was the first year the city has met its goal of spending $ 200 million per year on affordable housing – but the process of shifting people inside will inevitably be slow and partial, especially if the city does not do much more to finance both housing and housing.

Since the start of the pandemic, according to data provided by the Department of Social Services, the city has only added about 500 new shelter beds, and even that number is misleading, as it includes nearly 200 rooms in two Temporary hotel shelters that will close next month, sending vendors to scramble to find placements for hundreds of people in the middle of winter.

Strauss acknowledged last week that the reason the city could declare Ballard Commons successful was that so many small village units of houses had become available at once. “The reason we were able to remove the camp from our comments for the past two and a half months is that the shelter availability has been posted,” Strauss said.

Hours later, at a Ballard District Council meeting, King County Regional Homelessness Authority Director Marc Dones attempted to inject a dose of realism into a conversation with homeowners who expressed frustration continue to see homeless people in the area, including “one of the biggest RV problems in town.”

For example, a district council member asked if the homeless authority would provide a person or a team of people, like the community services officers of the Seattle Police Department, for residents of Ballard call when they see “someone repeatedly harassing a business” or sleeping in their car?

Instead of offering insignificant assurances, Dones replied that the KCRHA’s job is not to address individual neighborhood concerns about specific homeless people – nor to create a special homeless watch force to a neighborhood aid anyway, in the absence of resources to help the people whose behavioral health problems manifest themselves as a public nuisance. “For many people with intense behavioral health needs, we have nowhere to go. … It’s my job not to bullshit you on this, ”Dones said.

In addition, they added, sometimes the authority will reject outright community ideas that are bad. “TA large constituency here wants to solve this problem in a healthy and truly compassionate way, ”Dones said. “And this is one of those places where if we tell people the honest truth about what can and cannot be done with what we have, it will go a lot further.”

Telling the truth about what works and what doesn’t seem like a simple thing. But it’s so contrary to the Seattle way it’s almost shocking to hear an authority figure tell a bunch of traditional homeowners that they can’t have what they want and, what’s more , that what they don’t want will not solve the problem they identified.

Telling people what they want to hear is an entrenched political strategy, especially when it comes to homelessness. When she first took office, term mayor Jenny Durkan pledged she would build 1,000 new “cottage” shelters in her first year in office. By the end of his term, only about 200 had opened. His successor, Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, also pledged to add 2,000 new beds in “emergency accommodation and support”, using “existing local dollars” to fund this massive expansion. If this effort, modeled directly on the failed “Seattle Compassion” charter initiative, is successful, it will almost certainly result in a relatively inexpensive “improved” type of shelter that many people living in settlements reject, for reasons of reasons. that outreach workers (and maybe now come board members) understand.

The question for Seattle isn’t, or shouldn’t be, “How are we going to add as many shelter beds as cheaply as possible so that we can remove the homeless from public view?” It is, and should be: “How do we accommodate and accommodate the unsheltered people in a way that prevents them from returning to homelessness while creating realistic expectations for the housed residents who are frustrated with the encampments.” in the parks? As the example from Ballard Commons illustrates, it takes more than “X” number of shelter beds to get people to move inside. It takes time, effort, money and a willingness to see homeless people as full human beings.


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