By now you have probably heard from a number of individuals on the topic of the 'Failure to Respond Ordinance' and the expansion of the 'Sitting and Lying Ordinance.' Without question, there are a lot of people who find the proposed ordinances troubling. I find myself among them.
I recognize that there is a small population of individuals in the downtown area that are creating a logistical and aesthetic problem for downtown businesses and overall city image. I understand that the convening of this workgroup is an attempt to give local law enforcement more tools with which to curb these behaviors.
I am extremely concerned about those individuals who could be caught in the crossfire with these ordinances. I am concerned about those individuals who do not or will not have the capacity because of extreme mental illness, extreme poverty, developmental delay or other reasoning, to navigate further into the court system than they already are.
I am concerned about debt, jail space, mental health facility beds, bench warrants, increased barriers to housing. I am concerned about increased cost to taxpayers as individuals sit in jail and wait for a rare bed in crisis triage to become available even if they have the wherewithal to choose a diversion program. I am concerned about individuals who have been banned from the Lighthouse Mission (which can happen arbitrarily) and who are sleeping out unsheltered. Shelter is a basic human right. I find it bad enough that tickets may be issued for this, let alone misdemeanor charges.
I am concerned that coercive treatment is ineffectual. I am concerned that we don’t appear to have any data on the efficacy of this program in other cities. I am concerned it pushes a problem further to the margins of town and out of sight of individuals who would like to continue pretending it doesn’t exist. It appears to me that we’ve flushed homeless individuals out of the dark corners of our city and now we’re surprised that they are visible.
In a city that finally seems to be taking progressive strides to address chronic homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse, these ordinances seem regressive. We are only now building our capacity to serve unhoused people in need. We don’t even have our fledgling ‘housing first’ facility off the ground yet, and our Homeless Street Outreach program has barely been in place for one month. These are models that are proving successful in other municipalities and I suggest we give them a chance to make an impact before we set the bar back a few decades. As for sleeping out, a lower-barrier shelter may be in order, or other innovative solutions.
How do we deal with this small percentage of people exhibiting undesirable behavior, particularly public drunkenness, right on Holly Street? I’m not entirely sure. I feel that there must be models available from other cities to address it. What you are proposing is too sweeping and general, and to the public appears to criminalize extreme poverty rather than address a tiny subset of the population and their behaviors. We can do better. The city is full of visionary thinkers. I hope you’ll take this back to the drawing board with a big red editing marker, or at the very least postpone it until we actually have the capacity to offer the diversion programs we want people to access.
Whatcom Peace & Justice Center
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