See It, Send It… Do something

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The recent launch of the See It, Send It campaign by the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau Street Scene Task Force has generated a new run of debate over Seattle’s attitudes and responses to disorder Downtown. “Disorder” takes many forms depending upon your threshold.

 So far the campaign has forwarded eight (as of this afternoon) See It, Send It submissions:

1 – Photos of what looks to be a panhandling scam — two people switching places in a wheelchair while panhandling on the Waterfont
2 – Photo of an alleged drug dealer and a list of his regular business spots coupled with frustration at no response from police.
3 – Letter from a visitor appalled at the sheer number of homeless people Downtown and aggressive panhandling.
4 – Frustration with garbage from food trucks strewn on the sidewalk long after the vendors are gone.
5 – Hotel evaluation comments from a visitor who didn’t feel safe walking down to the waterfront because of litter, the smell of urine and “begging crackheads.”
6 – Photos submitted of pitbulls, blankets, cardboard signs and other material next to a tour bus stop on the waterfront.
7 – Bank customer observed someone urinating onto the sidewalk in front of the bank entrance.
8 – Visitor intimidated by a barking pitbull at Westlake Park, so intimidated she broke off her shopping trek and asked her hotel to pick her up. 

 None of these are great to find Downtown whether you’re a cruise ship visitor or you live in town. On the good side, I’ve heard from Tom Norwalk, the director of the SCVB, that Seattle Police Department, Seattle Public Utilities and other city departments have jumped quickly to clean up and fix problems identified in these messages. (Yes, we should prevent some of the problems in the first place, but I appreciate the city staff’s response.)

 And then there are the more difficult scenarios to address, the ones involving people impaired in one way or another.

 I hesitated to include the “begging crackheads” language from number 5 above, but I chose to because I think the reaction I have to that language (and the assumptions I make about the user of that language) may explain why we wrestle so hard in Seattle with these questions. I don’t think anyone deserves to be called a “begging crackhead,” even crack addicts. See It, Send It shouldn’t be reduced to an open invitation to vent and it shouldn’t allow people to cavalierly paint everyone with the same brush. Unfortunately, some people see in the See It, Send It campaign an open invitation to sweep the streets indiscriminately. Another email in my box spurred by See It, Send It:

 “I am fed up and disgusted by the crime, filth, human waste, and aggressiveness that comes with a failed plan to deal with excessive vagrancy.  Activists… had a chance with their advocacy and plan.  It’s a failure.  Pouring more time and money into it is irresponsible and absurd.   It’s time for a new plan to aggressively deal the panhandlers, criminals and vagrants that taint our city.  Please take immediate action to curtail funding to 503c3′s perpetuating this problem and empower and embolden our police department to assertively deal with the vagrants.”  

 The language of See It, Send It #5 is dehumanizing and I’m not so hot on the language of the emailer above either.

 At the same time, rejecting See It, Send It’s focus on the overall impact of “street people” is untenable, it would be like putting our heads in the sand. We do have stretches of our streets and areas in our parks where crime, trash and behavior make a lot of people – including homeless people – feel less welcome and less safe. We’re not good at saying so. It makes us feel mean and less compassionate.

 But there’s nothing compassionate about allowing drug dealing to persist or allowing trash to pile up or allowing people in distress to wander without intervention. We do no great service by allowing compassion to create cover for destruction.

 I happen to agree with many supporters of the See It, Send It campaign that we’re not succeeding the way we’d like in our efforts to move people off the streets and into housing and services. We’ve made incredible strides when it comes to building new housing with the services needed to keep people living in their homes successfully.

 However, because of the recession, the toll of drug and alcohol addiction and the crush of untreated mental illness, we have as big a lift in front of us today as we did when we started the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. See It, Send It has the possibility to be more than venting. It can and should demand both enforcement and a way off the street for people.

 Just last week we opened the doors on the winter shelters to augment the “regular” number of beds and mats available. We have a Center City Initiative and a Third Avenue project. We just unified property management at Westlake Park and new play area is about to be installed there. We’re pumping up outreach at Westlake to move homeless young people into housing and services. Police are attempting a new treatment diversion approach for some in Belltown. Earlier this year we opened the new Crisis Solutions Center, an alternative to jail or Harborview for people on the street in mental health distress.

 We have good people and good efforts trying to change the facts of street disorder and homelessness. See It, Send It creates the pressure. We all need to stay engaged after hitting the “send” button in order to solve the puzzle.