On my way home a few weeks ago, I nearly collided with an officer who was sprinting through Occidental Park. He jumped in his car, flipped on the blue lights and quickly drove toward Union Gospel Mission. By the time I arrived on foot, he’d joined a fire truck and six other squad cars blocking the intersection.
There had recently been a major drug bust in the neighborhood, so I thought maybe this was more of the same. I approached cautiously. Here’s what the excitement was about: One apparently mentally ill woman, standing naked with a blanket wrapped around her.
With all the cars and cops and flashing lights, it looked like a major crime scene. It wasn’t.
The officer I’d seen rushing to the scene quickly turned off his lights and drove away. A few moments later, an ambulance arrived. Crisis solved.
The night before, at a public safety meeting in Ballard, I watched a frustrated group of business owners grill Mayor Durkan about Seattle’s police shortage.
Business owners wanted to know: How long would it take us to see a difference on the streets?
Not soon, said the mayor. It’s going to take time. That was not a popular answer.
But, just maybe, more cops isn’t the only answer.
I remember a day about 20 years ago when our office was in Belltown. I thought homelessness was unacceptable then, but I had yet to learn the meaning of the word.
It was a hot summer afternoon, and my coworker at Real Change said something like, “Oh, my God! Look!”
Real Change was all windows in the front and there, just outside our door, was a woman wearing only shoes, peering between her legs toward the sidewalk behind her.
Before I could say, “I feel poorly equipped to handle this,” Mental Health Chaplain Craig Rennebohm walked through our door like some kind of Clark Kent happening by on his way to a phone booth.
He then asked the most on-point question imaginable.
“Do you have a blanket?”
Rennebohm went outside and calmly convinced his new friend to cover up and walk the three blocks to Street Outreach Services (SOS), a peer-run, harm-reduction center for drug users where she could get the help she needed.
He treated the woman in crisis like a person rather than a problem.
There was no police emergency to be handled.
All the situation took was one skilled social worker, a blanket and somewhere for her to go.
SOS is gone now. So is Rennebohm’s mental health chaplain program. But we have police. Whether there’s too many or not enough depends on the situation.
Recently Real Change reported on Health One, the new pilot program that
dials down crisis response to respond more appropriately to “non-acute” situations.
Health One offers a more proportional response to non-emergency situations that will save money while adding capacity. Instead of sending a fire truck and too many cops to resolve a non-threatening cry for help, there would be a couple of EMTs and a social worker in a van.
While this is a step in the right direction, don’t get too excited. It’s really just low-hanging fruit. Much more could be done to reserve police capacity for actual crime.
Last week, the homeless outreach experts at the REACH program told the city that they would no longer participate in Navigation Team homeless encampment cleanups unless specifically invited by residents.
Turns out that when the mayor ramped up the police presence on the Navigation Team last year, this was the starting gun for a near-exclusive focus on clearing sidewalk encampments.
Basically, the predicted worst-case scenario quickly came to pass. Ninety-six percent of encampment removals over five weeks in April and May were no-notice-required “obstruction” removals.
As any homeless person knows, when five guys in blue show up bristling with gear, your life is probably not about to get better.
If you’re just moving people on, cops can do that on their own.
The skilled social workers at REACH are finding better things to do. That’s good for all of us.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
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