The Soapbox: Clearly, the city is intent on moving the homeless from parks – but where should they go?

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OPINION

The SOAPBOX

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Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.



Tuesday’s forecast calls for rain, with a low of 32. It will be the coldest night so far since last winter. Meanwhile, at City Hall, people will be warm and somewhat cozy for the meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BOMA). And they will be voting about whether to fully ban the following things from our local city parks, including basic transportation devices, as well as basic safety devices for bad or hot weather: Tarps, “market” or “beach” umbrellas, shopping carts, and the possession of more than one bicycle. 

According to the Chief of Parks, these items are now being used to “erect shelters” and for “establishing semi-permanent living accommodations during non-curfew hours.” Among his concerns are that this “results in visible barriers behind which illicit behavior can occur.” He goes on to claim that it “contributes to the presence of litter…included but not limited to syringes.”

Many of the aldermen have expressed their support for this, to varying degrees. According to Alderman Pat Long in a recent article from Manchester Ink Link, he “has heard from constituents saying parks have been taken over by people with shopping carts.” In the same article, Alderman Bill Barry was quoted as saying “It’s unfortunate because it’s probably just a few people that ruin it for others.”

Let’s be clear in saying that there is absolutely no harm done at all to anyone when someone goes into a park with a shopping cart, a tarp, a large umbrella, or a pair of bicycles. Nobody is being harmed from the use of these items, even when they’re used to create some form of temporary “privacy barriers,” for the people who have absolutely no private places of their own. This doesn’t contribute to litter of any kind, because the only thing which does that is people who litter. It is also being falsely claimed that park access is being “obstructed” which is only true if you feel that having to walk within 10 feet of some homeless people is actually a legitimate “obstruction.” 

At the very least, this could easily be tabled until a new Homeless Initiatives Coordinator is hired and can advise about the potential consequences, as was recommended by Alderman Erin Geroge-Kelley. Yet this was challenged by aldermen Stewart, Long, and Barry, who expressed that this could not wait until a replacement was found. So if nobody is actually being harmed, then what’s the big rush here? Seems like there’s a pretty big rush here, all to stop something which really isn’t harming anyone. WSo what are they really trying to do? And where did all of these people suddenly come from with their tarps and umbrellas and shopping carts?   

Let’s answer those questions in reverse. First of all, the reason we have so many people with umbrellas and tarps and shopping carts showing up at the parks is because they have no place else to go. Some are coming over from the shelter. Often after being banned, for up to a year, over very minor and understandable offenses. In fact, the list of resident suspensions for that place has been consistently growing into truly epic proportions. Even after they were called out for this, and for many other significant problems, throughout a series of protests and press coverage last fall. However, the majority are coming from evicted camps, or from other formerly “safe” spots throughout the city where they have also been forcibly evicted. I spoke to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen about this earlier in the year. I told them that if you chase everyone out of the camps and other makeshift safe spots, then they’re just going to show up in parks, and around your residences, and around your businesses. They will be more desperate than ever, and far more likely to engage in crimes, as well as other destructive or potentially lethal behaviors. More break-ins, more thefts, more stabbings, more violence, and more deaths. Then I watched it all happen, just as I predicted. Which really makes you wonder: How many people have to complain, or die, before they actually start to listen to proven experts about how to deal effectively with these problems?

So what are they really trying to do? That part is obvious. They’re actually not trying to target the homeless population with this. That’s a common misconception, even amongst my fellow advocates and activists. They’re mostly trying to target what they see as “the bad ones”. 

Specifically, they want to drive people out of the parks just for using their drugs intravenously. That might sound like a noble goal to some people. They sincerely want to reduce intravenous drug use if they can, or at least move it someplace where nobody has to see that it’s happening. Because it’s really just not a “good look” for the city, or for the people who run it. Even when it’s being hidden behind improvised privacy barriers. Everything else is just collateral damage. The homeless people who don’t do that sort of drug, but still need to use tarps or shopping carts, or watch a friend’s bike while also having one of their own, will just have to suffer the consequences. Same for any member of the general citizenry who might ever need to use a tarp, or watch someone’s bike. This will mean that lots of people who have no place to go will be either unable to access the parks at all, or will have to give up some of the essential tools which are so obviously critical to their basic survival. Our city officials seem to feel that the goals which they’re seeking to accomplish are in fact so noble and valid as to actually justify this infliction of even more misery upon our most miserable of citizens. And even for those who agree, we could argue all day about whether they are at least “theoretically correct” about their position that “the ends will justify the means”.

The bigger problem is that this absolutely will not accomplish any of their goals. The people who have no choice but to live in and around these parks will still have no other place to go. The people who cannot yet find a way of recovering from their addictions to intravenously ingested drugs will still continue to use their drugs. Which means the result is very easy to predict. The people will still stay. The users will still use. None of that will change, because they have no viable alternatives. Instead, the shopping carts and the tarps used to protect the belongings which they contain will be replaced by new piles of black trash bags. The groups who are surrounded by umbrellas and tarps and bicycles will become a new series of individuals that are hiding under blankets, doing the exact same things that they did before. Is that going to be a “good look”? Especially when the people under those blankets start to turn up dead all the time?

Because the amendments to this ordinance are absolutely going to kill some people. Whatever you may think about those little privacy circles, or what might be happening inside of them, they actually save a whole lot of lives. Overdose deaths have been increasing at a rate which is simply staggering.

Some cities are choosing to effectively address this problem with “safe injection sites”, which have had demonstrably tremendous results. As the .former mayor of Ithica said after researching these programs, they have statistically shown to increase the number of people who go into recovery by 30 percent, while reducing the number of overdose deaths by 100%. Nobody has EVER died at a safe injection site. Meanwhile, in cities like ours, those “privacy circles” at the park are the closest thing we can possibly have right now to any form of “safe injection sites”. It’s where people can at least watch over one another, and stand ready with Narcan, just to ensure that the inevitable overdoses don’t ultimately become lethal. Taking those circles away is not going to reduce drug use at all, nor will it promote recovery. It won’t even make the parks look any better. It will just make them into death traps, as they become littered with more and more dead bodies. While also being littered with more needles too. Because the people who go into those privacy circles actually remind each other to check for dropped items. And they remind them that it’s certainly not a “good look” for any of us to just leave their used needles on the ground. So mark my words: If these amendments are approved, then EVERYTHING will only get worse, for EVERYONE.

If they really want to reduce the usage of intravenous or other drugs then this is the opposite of how to make that happen. They should be supporting harm reduction, in the form of safe injection sites. The only amendments they should be considering is the removal of the relatively recent and absurdly harmful prohibitions against both “camping” and “needle exchanges” in local parks. If they want to reduce all drug use in the parks, and get rid of everything from shopping carts to “privacy circles”, to dropped needles, then there’s only one viable solution for that: Just… give … them… a… better… place… to… go! It really is that simple. It’s what experts call a “temporary safe encampment space”. It’s working wonders in many cities as we speak, including Missoula, Las Cruces, and Durango. And it’s the closest thing that can be done right now in terms of adhering to the highly effective “housing first model”. At least in the absence of being able to immediately get these people into housing. The use of a “Housing First” methodology is expressly recommended by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) as a “best practice” for governments and service agencies to use in their fight to end chronic homelessness in America. So giving people a safe place to live instead of the parks, or near residences and businesses, is unarguably a win for everyone.

All the evidence and data show that it reduces crime, reduces public expenses, reduces illness/injuries, reduces deaths, reduces litter and “human waste”, increases public health/safety, increases recovery rates for ALL forms of mental health disorders (especially substance abuse), and increases various other aspects of societal well being, for both the homeless and the housed. I think I speak for most of the local activists and advocates in saying that we will happily help with moving our people out of the parks and the camps and the neighborhoods and the streets…but ONLY if they can just give us AT LEAST one, single, viable place for them to go instead.


Beg to differ? Agree to disagree? Your thoughtful prose on topics of general interest are welcome. Send submissions to publisher@manchesterinklink.com for consideration.


 

About this Author

Dam Wright

"Dam Wright" is an independent consultant for homeless initiatives in Manchester. He specializes in outreach, aid, and advocacy for our local homeless community. Along with other duties, such as event management, educational programs, and the refined management of homeless facilities and public policies regarding homelessness.