Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A Seattle Manifesto

Manifesto: Italian, from Latin manifestus, clear, evident. See manifest.
A public declaration of principles, policies, or intentions, especially of a political nature.

This editorial runs in this weeks Real Change, and is intended as a challenge for all of us to reconsider our approach to homelessness and poverty. Our systematic failure as homeless advocates and service providers to recognize that radical inequality and increased poverty and homelessness are linked have placed us in the position of now being part of the problem.

Call it a sign of the times. Cities throughout the Northwest and beyond are getting tough on visible poverty. Tacoma and Portland have enacted some of the most stringent “time, place, and manner” restrictions on panhandling anywhere, and Seattle has quietly adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy on homeless encampments of any size. San Francisco is an anti-homeless war zone, with homeless sweeps becoming both more frequent and brutalizing.

Even here, in liberal Seattle, the diamond-hard edge of our times is beginning to be felt.

The Downtown Seattle Association says there are more human feces on the street now than before public toilets were installed. They want this basic public amenity removed.

They say panhandling is up by thirty-eight percent this year alone, despite their new “Have a Heart” campaign to discourage direct giving. They say that outdoor meals programs, which serve some of the toughest cases, attract litter, dysfunction, and blight.

Yet, few others seem to have noticed. Business is booming. The convention center and facilities at other hotels and conference centers are fully booked. Downtown living is more popular than ever, and concerted efforts to effectively address homelessness are underway.

So why the meanness? Why here? Why now?

The answer has to do with the future of our downtown, and the hardening soul of Seattle. As those who have the means increasingly opt for in-city living, Seattle is becoming an island of affluence in a sea of growing economic and racial disparity.

One barrier to downtown living is the perception that it might not be safe. With big money committed to downtown development that is designed to attract the wealthiest one percent, the DSA's preoccupation with squelching visible poverty makes a lot more sense.

While everyone knows that the downtown has been rezoned for “tall and skinny” condo development, the upper-end of this market is the proverbial tail that wags the dog.

There’s the Escala at 4th and Virginia, slated to open in 2009. "Anticipate perfection. Embrace elegance. Experience grandeur," says their website. This 30-story glass tower at 4th and Virginia has 275 new condos going for a million dollars or more each. Nearby, at the Fifteen Twenty One Second Avenue Building ("designed exclusively for the confident few"), 143 units sell for an average of $1.8 million each. The move-in date here is December 2008.

The Four Seasons, going in at 1st and Union and scheduled to open in summer 2008, bills itself as "Seattle's Signature Address," and will feature 36 private residences above a luxury hotel. Condos are priced from $2.5 million to more than $10 million.

With all this wealth comes a vision for a downtown that is safe, secure, and sanitized, where the ├╝ber-rich and the merely affluent can buy groceries at the public market and uphold high cultural standards at the SAM without ever having to confront the ugly side of inequality.

It'll be sort of like New York. But without the diversity or the people.

There is a strategy in play, and it involves both carrots and sticks. The priority for "ending homelessness," led by federal funding opportunities and eagerly adopted by government, philanthropy, and large human services institutions who stand to benefit, focuses on that ten percent or so of homeless people who constitute the visible urban poor, otherwise known as the "chronic homeless."

No matter what the issue — homelessness, education, the environment, whatever — federal funding levels are a precise calibration of maximal cooptation at minimal price. Homelessness goes for around $1.6 billion right now. Cheap.

The stick is the increased policing of the urban poor, and new legal tools designed to drive poverty from the center to the periphery.

If there is a central fact of life in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century it is this: What we don’t see doesn’t bother us.

As the Downtown Seattle Association beats their steady media drumbeat of faux-compassion and tough love for the poor, we can expect them to move from rhetoric to more explicit forms of action. We need to prepare for when this happens

Approaches to homelessness that stigmatize and criminalize poverty must be resisted. Rhetoric that legitimates fear and hatred of the poor under a threadbare cover of compassion needs to be questioned. Policies that undermine equality and democracy need to be identified and opposed.

For too long, the strategy to end homelessness has focused on charity, while questions of economic justice have received little more than useless lip service. Meanwhile, a one-sided class war has raged on right under our noses.

Don’t you think it’s time to take sides?


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