Dear President Trump,
Last Thursday the homeless encampment just outside the fence of the public golf course by the VA was swept. By the time I’d parked to walk in to work, nearly half of the 20 or so tents had been removed and none of the people who’d been living there for months were around. There were plenty of police officers and members of the clean up crew, but everyone else had apparently cleared out – Angie and her boyfriend, Bomber, the old vet in the wheelchair, the young vet with the toy American flag dangling from his tent – they’d all vanished or were holing up in their yet-to-be-removed tents.
The city website page on homelessness says that there has to be social service workers present at the beginning of an encampment removal to provide guidance on shelter alternatives, though there is a clause saying those workers don’t have to stay the whole time if no one wants their help. Sounds semi-reasonable, but it also seems like someone in that position could walk up and down the adjacent sidewalk and quietly whisper that they have a half-assed list of shelters where couples can’t stay together and when no one expresses interest, whether because they didn’t hear the offer or because they didn’t like the offer, the worker can check that site off the list and go on with their day. Whatever the situation for this encampment, there was definitely not someone social service-y looking still there when I walked past.
The website also says that the city has to post notices ahead of when a removal is scheduled, which I find curious because at least as of Tuesday there were no such notices posted. Maybe they put them up sometime on Wednesday when I was at an off-site work retreat, but if so, they certainly didn’t give the tent residents much time to come up with alternatives. There were signs laid out along the edge of the parking area by the encampment all last week saying there would be no parking in the area from Thursday through Monday morning, but there are loads of trees along there that need care so it wasn’t at all clear that the no parking notices had anything to do with the encampment, though they surely did.
At the end, though, there were several signs prominently posted (stapled to trees) saying that people cannot come back and camp there and a Yes/No check box about whether belongings removed from the site will be stored. This one was checked “No”. Just “No”. On the website there’s verbiage about what will and won’t be stored, but it’s really not clear what tips the balance or if there’s one tent deemed too hazardous to store whether the other 19, or however many, are trashed too. And of course there appears to be no recourse – if your stuff is seized and trashed, it’s just gone. There was no phone number or email contact anywhere on this part of the website and on the sign there’s a phone number to call if (IF) your stuff is in storage, but otherwise it appears that homeless people are SOL, again and still.
Leaving work Thursday evening I saw a woman and a man who used to live in one of the tents and she was crying as she picked through the tiny bit of debris left on the ground where her home had been. Her partner was trying to comfort her, but she was understandably bereft. I knew I didn’t have anything useful to say and didn’t want to intrude, but I still felt bad just walking by.
The city website only lists the 2019 removals up through July so last week’s isn’t there yet, but in the first 7 months of the year, 52 encampments were swept and in only 22 of those instances was property stored. For each removal you can click on an icon and open a pdf where there’s an official description of the site and the removal process, including the storage Yes/No determination. It also lists how many tents and vehicles were removed – the one I opened said 22 overall and the one at the VA involved at least 20 tents and probably an additional 10 vehicles. Thus, my estimate is that there’ve probably been between 90 and 100 encampment sweeps, which means roughly 2,375 (25 x 95) domiciles will have been swept this year, many of which housed more than one person. I know that some of those people likely have been caught up in multiple sweeps, but still, these are horrible numbers and these are individual people who are already struggling and whose circumstances are not being made better by losing where they live and along with all their belongings.
Right now I can’t personally offer solutions (such as actually instituting the big corporation head tax that our city leadership reneged on and actually doing something real about affordable permanent housing), but it felt important to bear witness and to tell you what happened.
May we have safe and affordable housing that people want to live in.
May we be willing to prioritize basic human needs over tax breaks for wealthy corporations.
May we stop throwing vulnerable people under the capitalist bus.
May you not start another war.