It was a master case of bad timing.
Persistent questioning by Real Change revealed this month that the state was working on guidelines to make sure the kind of accident that killed Isaac Palmer June 2 didn't happen again. When they outlined what they were up to, people at WSDOT were upbeat.
Here was the agency on whose watch the rotary blades of a brushcutter struck Palmer in the head, killing him instantly, as he lay out of sight beneath I-5 on Sat., June 2, 2007.
Palmer's death by machine was a horrid instance of what happens when aggressive policing pushes the poorest members of our community out of sight. These guidelines, released eight months later, were supposed to be evidence of lessons learned.
On Thurs., Feb. 14, WSDOT called to say the guidelines were ready. Then, that same morning, they called back. Another homeless man had been killed on the site of a freeway project.
Ralph Edward Vantine, 61, of Snohomish, was crushed under a 60-foot manlift. Dead, said the Snohomish County Medical Examiner, of head injuries. Another homeless man killed this year by WSDOT negligence.
Disturbing news. The guidelines, released a few days later, didn't make me feel any better.
I should have known trouble was coming when WSDOT described the City of Seattle's recently drafted encampment clearance protocol as their model.
Mostly, the agency is telling contractors involved in construction work in areas where homeless people are known to camp to post signs 72 hours before work begins. Social service workers need not show up; though the city and local shelters will be contacted, there's little reason for anyone to walk up to an underpass and get to know its inhabitants. Where would they tell them to go? City officials and social service workers alike know -- though the former has spent untold time denying this -- that there's not enough shelter.
There is also the obligatory pickup-truck sized loophole. "Crew scheduling, emergency repairs and removal of nuisances" will send advance notice sailing out the window. "Sites where maintenance occurs on a frequent but random basis will be posted 'No Trespassing.'"
Translation: Never mind the Fourth Amendment protection against the seizure of your things, or the state law that provides for the storage and repossession of property "abandoned" in public spaces. We'll take your stuff when we feel we need to. The No Trespassing sign spray-painted to this concrete abutment is warning enough.
Which they already do. Real Change staff witnessed one of those operations Feb. 12 where I-5 cuts under Pike and Pine streets, as court-assigned community service workers took and loaded into unmarked trucks poor people's survival gear. Mattresses, sleeping bags, pillows, clothing, and other personal effects went into the unmarked trucks. No signs of any kind had been posted to warn people of an upcoming sweep. Everything went to the landfill.
A little north of that spot, a "cleaning" crew had been been through twice a week earlier to oust a group of campers. Among the bunch were two Real Change vendors, both of whom wound up hospitalized for health problems related to exposure.
Department of Corrections personnel have expressed some moral ambivalence about this work. Throwing away personal articles is "kind of a waste," one staffer told me last year.
If it sticks in the DOC's craw, you know it's a dirty business.
And one that, one can't help speculating,took some toll on city Human Services Department head Patricia McInturff, who announced her retirement Feb. 22.
McInturff has been the city's designated shit-taker on the beefed-up sweeps protocol that's moving toward its final iteration. It was a ham-handed and sardonic move by Team Nickels to put the kinder, gentler visage
of the city's social service bureaucracy in nominal charge of what's basically an act of law enforcement. I suspect McInturff is trying to exit her 30-year career with a whit of integrity, and has offloaded the task of issuing a new policy of criminalization to someone with less to lose.
McInturff's departure highlights the absence of other publicly designated voices of conscience. Absent prominent public criticism, the city is being propped up as a standard-bearer for a process that WSDOT will soon enact across the state. The Committee to End Homelessness' silence makes this possible. That's a searing reminder that ending homelessness is a task for all of us.
The message, from city and state agencies as prosaic as City Light and WSDOT as they develop their "protocols" and their "guidelines," is that unsheltered homeless people are now on the map: Homelessness is not a breakdown of our commonwealth but an impediment to be worked around, a (to use Team Nickels' preferred phrase) public health and public safety hazard. A thing not to be ended, but managed.