Sunday, December 20, 2015

Mayor Anna Peterson's "Homeless Issues"

Anna Peterson for Mayor

Last Monday, December 14th, in remarks about her "Update on Efforts to Alleviate Homelessness", the Mayor stated that she and the other officials on her soon-to-be-formed regional  task force on homelessness, “are not grabbing headlines, we are grabbing the problem.”

I know some people think we haven't been doing anything because you don't see headlines about what I'm doing or whatever, but I wanted you to know that we've been active and I will be coming [to Council] in January with a request for the Council's support for our participation in this regional task force that we are forming.

Presumably, by “headlines” she meant the coverage of the recent west coast mayors’ summit on homelessness and climate change in Portland, which she did not attend.  Some social media posts blamed her for not attending, but it’s possible she just wasn’t invited, as she has not demonstrated much interest in or understanding of homelessness during her administration.  Others in Salem have, but not the Mayor. Certainly not compared to the mayors of Eugene, Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco.  For Mayor Peterson, homelessness is primarily a public safety or “quality of life” issue -- for the housed.  Consider her record.

January 2011, Mayor Peterson took office.  Her first State of the City address a month later touched on homelessness indirectly, and the need for services: 

February 2012, her second State of the City address again avoided use of the word “homeless”:

February 2013, the Mayor’s State of the City address for the first time made specific mention of “homeless individuals”:

Last spring, we formed the Safe Streets and Parks Task Force, to respond to public complaints about begging and loitering downtown, urban camping in our city parks, and the serious increase of homeless individuals and families in need of services and shelters

February 2014, in her State of the City speech, she spoke of her plan to reduce panhandling, "a growing homeless population", and how she discovered that the City doesn’t provide public toilets after hours:  

The Safe Streets and Parks Task Force that I formed...launched a campaign to reduce panhandling...Downtown and parks patrols...have been reach out to homeless people and help them move off the streets and out of our parks and into shelters and transitional housing.  And here is the innovative twist on panhandling.  We are asking the public to stop giving money and food out on the streets.  Instead, donate to recognized social service [sic] and no[n] profits with a track record of success at moving people to a more stable and self-sufficient life.  But who is safe?  You and I, who can go home at night and lock the door. That’s not the solution, that’s merely avoidance.  Avoidance of a growing homeless population caused by as many different circumstances as there are people.  Sure, mental illness rank high as underlying factors.  But this economy is forcing unemployed families...often mothers with children, to sleep in their cars, on friend[s’] couches, or camp in our city parks.  United Way and I formed a Shelter Workgroup to sort out what we have and what is needed in the way of safe shelter and affordable housing.  But solutions are a long way off, and we need your help.  When I had the opportunity to volunteer two nights at the Warming Shelter, word quickly spread that the mayor was there, and that I wanted to listen to their thoughts and needs.  And do you know what they asked for?  Not money, not food and shelter, not handouts or an easy ride.  They asked me for toilets.  Toilets open at night.  I was ashamed.  Ashamed that with all our resources and comforts, we had not thought to provide for the most basic of human needs.  We get angry when the sidewalks and doorways are soiled.  And we think we have no responsibility?  Well…

Shortly after her speech, the Mayor asked the Safe Streets and Parks Task Force to consider "toilets and sanitary services for the homeless."  However, by the time city budget discussions were completed, it was apparent that the Mayor’s enthusiasm for after hours toilets had waned.  In late 2014, after a long delay, the Mayor finally released for distribution posters developed for her "Real Change"-type anti-panhandling campaign.  See here, here and here.

February 2015, in her next-to-last State of the City address, the Mayor asserted that “[h]ousing and shelter issues” had been getting the City’s attention, and homelessness had become “a serious issue”:

August 2015, at the Mayor’s request, the City Council held a work session titled, "Public Restrooms and Regulating Conduct in the Right of Way."  The Mayor told the Council that what she wanted was not "new proposals", but increased police presence downtown.  She said she planned to "take this back to staff" for a report or recommendation as to whether "we need more [police] resources" downtown.  The Mayor also indicated she would be calling for greater "accountability" by recipients of general fund social service dollars (annually ~$400K) for panhandling-related behavior downtown, saying:

We have many [social service] agencies which, because of their location, draw people into the downtown area, and then, I feel, they don't feel a sense of responsibility for the result.  And I think it's time for the City to say back to them, what are you doing?  Maybe you need to be doing something differently as well.

Fall 2015, the Mayor joined the rest of the Council in advancing Ordinance Bill 18-15, merging the Social Services Advisory Board and the Housing and Urban Development Advisory Committee, in effect acknowledging that SSAB had long since ceased to oversee/ensure the effective delivery of social services in Salem.  A month later, in response to public comment that the Council had not addressed "the plight of the homeless" at any City Council meeting in the past 3 years, the Mayor demurred, cited the August 2015 work session, and said, "the City of Salem can't do it alone...we are not, in fact, charged to do that, and we're not funded to do that."  However, she did ask the Marion County Public Safety Coordinating Committee, of which she was a member, to add homelessness to its work plan and, after meeting several times with County Commissioners Janet Carlson (Marion) and Jennifer Wheeler (Polk), Keizer Mayor Clark and Salem City Councilor Bednarz, announced the formation of a homeless task force consisting of all the above, except Councilor Bednarz, and a couple of staff.  

Which brings us to the present.  What can we expect from a group of officials who are, no doubt, well meaning, but who have so little knowledge and experience of the issues as these four?  At least the mayors of Eugene, Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco are willing to admit they do not yet understand enough about homelessness in their communities to know what actions are most needed, or likely to be most effective, and yet they know a great deal more than the members of the Mayor’s regional task force.
Nevertheless, following the close of the meeting last Monday night, the Mayor reportedly said she was not interested in “extended planning”, and anticipated the members of the task force would be taking action after only two or three meetings.  If that report is true, expectations of the task force should be limited, very limited, and everyone who was hoping for more should just forget about it, and go back to the serious and hard work of education, collaboration, innovation and “extended planning” that are needed to "alleviate homelessness" in this community, and elsewhere.  

Update:  In early January, the Mayor spoke about the task force with the Statesman Journal.  On January 14, at the first City Council meeting of 2016, the Council, without comment, adopted as part of the consent calendar, Resolution No. 2016-1 appointing the Mayor, Councilor Bednarz, SPD Chief Moore, the Hon. David Leith, and Ron Hays to the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative, which is to start work in February and last 1 year, unless extended.  The first meeting has been set for February 17 from 4-6 in the Anderson Room of the Library.

Update: On March 2, 2016, the Mayor delivered her last "State of the City" speech to a large audience, including many members of the task force, their advisers, and housing/homeless service providers.  She spoke of homelessness briefly much earlier in her this speech than was usual ("one of 2015's challenges, along with panhandling, staff retirements, the lack of after-hours toilets, the cramped police station, and a rise in parking fees"), but, as usual, she left most of what she had to say about it until the end:
As I said at the beginning of this speech, homelessness is a pressing issue and one we cannot ignore.  In the downtown area, we owe a huge thanks to local churches and to the Arta-Pottie group who stepped forward last year to provide shelter and bathrooms in several places downtown.  
As proof that we are the Collaboration Capital, Keizer Mayor Cathy Clark -- and if you're here, I hope you'll stand [they apparently were not there] -- Marion County Janet Carlson, Polk County Commissioner Jennifer Wheeler and I have launched the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative Task Force.  Our first meeting drew a standing room only crowd of community members and service providers.  I am convinced that with this type of community support we're going to find new resources and bring innovative solutions to reduce the plight of individuals and families who now sleep under bridges, in cars, on people's couches, or double up in rental houses and apartments while they wait for affordable housing that we so desperately need.