Sunday, December 20, 2015

Thank you, Mayor Peterson


 Revised: December 2018


By Sarah Owens and Michael Livingston

[Originally published under the title, "Mayor Anna Peterson's 'Homeless Issues'"]

Homelessness was to Mayor Peterson primarily a public safety or “quality of life” issue -- for the housed.  She took office January 2011.  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”, in connection with her Safe Streets and Parks Task Force.
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 her discovery 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.  See 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 on public toilets and panhandling.  See here.  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 City did eventually add back the two Downtown Enforcement Team members that had been cut.

Jane Doe at City Council
January 25, 2016, the City Council authorized the Charter of the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative Task Force at a regular meeting. During the public comment period, a woman identifying herself only as Jane Doe said she hated to "break the momentum, but I'm really disappointed in this [Initiative] -- you're way far behind, I don't see what you could do in a year, this should have been done five years ago...there are people who have those answers immediately, and it should not take a year to go over this when cities have gone over it and over it and over it before and there are mayors' alliances doing this."  In closing, she added, "to exclude [from the Initiative Task Force] anybody from that [homeless] community is really kind of all the more insulting." 

Mayor Peterson responded defensively, insisting that much had been done and grappled with and citing the lack of resources.

On March 2, 2016, the Mayor delivered her last "State of the City" speech to a large audience
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.
Privately, everyone agrees the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative has been a bust.  Despite big promises and many meetings, the Task Force found no new resources or solutions and reduced no one's plight.  They did develop a strategic plan and form a steering committee to oversee its implementation through a Homeless Initiative Program Coordinator.  Whether anything comes of that, we shall have to see.  If it does, we will gladly say thank you, Mayor Peterson.