Treating Homeless People As Symbols

You knew something like this was bound to happen.

Late Wednesday morning, March 2, Andrew Harris was sitting in his legally parked car in Magnolia Village, where he has worked at a local gas station for over a decade. Suddenly, says Harris, a uniformed security officer rapped on his window.

The officer, James Tooney, works for a private security company called Central Protection that has been retained by Magnolia residents dissatisfied with the Seattle Police Department’s unwillingness to confirm some of their wilder theories concerning the menacing hordes of homeless people in cars and RVs infesting their quiet neighborhood. And so, Harris claims, Tooney told him that his car was parked illegally and he would need to move. Harris replied that it wasn’t, and started filming the encounter with his cell phone. That’s apparently when things got ugly. Harris says Tooney – a private rent-a-cop with no more legal authority than any other citizen, pulled Harris from his car and swatted the phone from hia hand, shattering it when it fell. As Harris stooped to pick up the pieces, he claims, Tooney pepper-sprayed him “seven or eight times,” tackled and handcuffed him, leaving him in the back of Tooney’s SUV while SPD was called.

Central Protection has refused to comment other than to say that Tooney’s version of events differs significantly – but paramedics did treat Harris for pepper spray to the face and eyes, SPD did not arrest or charge Harris; and Harris had every right to sit quietly in his vehicle. He’s reportedly considering assault charges. But this is what happens when private companies are given orders to run off people who “don’t belong,” and Central Protection’s client, the Magnolia Patrol Association, has already been notorious for bizarre accusations at public hearings and was outed by local blogger Erica C. Barnett as using the NextDoor app to fan their collective anti-homeless paranoia in rather unhinged ways.

Magnolia and Ballard residents are the constituents Sen. Reuven Carlyle was most directly catering to when he spearheaded introduction of a bill in Olympia last month that would spend $1 million to build a razor-wire-topped fence around the now-swept site of The Jungle, a notorious homeless encampment between I-5 and Beacon Hill that has persisted for at least two decades despite various city efforts to clear it out. Carlyle’s bill would then spend another $600,000 a year to retain – wait for it – a private security firm, to ensure that former residents don’t try to climb, cut, or dig their way back into the forbidden zone.

Now, if our ongoing national brouhaha about illegal immigration has taught us anything, it is that no fence or wall actually works if people are determined enough. Portions of the US border with Mexico not only have fences and razor wire, but walls, rivers, motion sensors and cameras, satellite imagery, roadblocks up to 100 miles inside the border, and numerous militarized patrols of roadless areas. And people still get in.

Beyond wasting money, however, there’s another issue with Carlyle’s bill: it has no provisions for spending any of its rare state funds on shelter or housing for the homeless at all, let alone specifically for the over 400 people formerly living in The Jungle. The state says that housing the homeless is the city’s responsibility; Meanwhile, Mayor Ed Murray has for months begged the state and federal governments to help with funding because the scope of the problem so clearly exceeds the Seattle’s ability to throw money at it.

All that is not to say that folks living in vehicles can’t pose legitimate problems. And plenty of people purporting to help are also being reckless these days. A formerly legal encampment now calling itself Camp Dearborn has evicted Nickelsville as its sponsor, neglecting, in the process voiding its city contract and failing to reliably provide toilets, garbage, or sufficient food. The land’s owner wants them gone. Across town, an activist group called “common cents” called publicly for homeless people to break into and squat in unused buildings around Seattle. Inviting homeless people – many of whom have physical or mental health issues, disabilities, and/or outstanding warrants, and carry their important possessions with them – to court confrontations with police and entanglement with the legal system, without providing any significant support for the resulting calamities, is hugely irresponsible.

What all of these developments have in common is an apparent willingness to treat people living in shelters, encampments, vehicles, or on the street as an abstraction, convenient for scoring personal or ideological points. The only ones who get hurt (other than bystanders like Harris) are the homeless themsleves, each of whom has their own histories, stories, and needs. They’re human beings – not gaming chips.

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