WTHHLN: “She’s Homeless”

This is a continuation of a series of posts about What The Hell Happened Last Night. Like previous installments, it is heavily biased reportage.

There were two main topics of interest at last night’s Council meeting: Occupy Worcester and homelessness.  I’ll cover the latter in this post.

The homelessness issue was, unfortunately, split up into two parts: an abridged non-discussion of the proposed SMOC triage center at 1398 Main Street, and the Human Rights Commission’s request for a new ten-year plan to address homelessness.

SMOC/Triage Center

I showed up at the last night’s City Council meeting on the early end of things and sat down on a bench outside Esther Howland chamber.  A man sat next to me and we started talking.  He lives in the area close to the Anna Maria Rest Home, and spoke with great hostility towards the project.

He said that if the proposed triage center moved there, he would burn it down.

Sadly, after reading the T&G account of Monday’s meeting on the triage center, this sort of violent rhetoric is not out of the ordinary.  In fact, it appears to have been encouraged by at least one elected official.

Whoa, that was quick…

The public first found out about the triage center as a brief mention in the November 15th Council meeting.  Last night, since Phil Palmieri held the item, no one really spoke on it.

Next week’s Council meeting will be November 29.

The temporary triage center is set to open on December 1.

…because that’s the city’s M.O.

The city has never learned the most important lesson of public scandals: it’s the coverup, not the scandal, that will do you in.

We are so often presented with these projects as a fait accompli rather than a collaboration between the neighborhood and the city (or social service agency, or large business).

When people are presented with a done deal in their own backyard, their reactions can seem like NIMBY.  But part of that reaction is a (perceived or real) lack of respect and loss of agency.

If the city administration is willing to act on a plan and disenfranchise you right from the get-go, without involving any of your elected officials, why would you then trust any assurances they make about the safety of your neighborhood or the appropriateness of the site?

Not involving the appropriate people at the appropriate times is the hallmark of the current city administration.  And — in fairness — none of our city officials are willing to consistently require that of the City Manager.

[An example of a process I thought worked relatively well was the James Street Bridge.  There were hearings, and I didn’t get the sense that everyone’s minds were made up before the process began.  Was it perfect?  Was everyone ecstatic?  No and no.  But there was a level of respect and fairness that this process is lacking.  The difference?  It was run by MassDOT, not the city.]

Clarification of the neighborhood

Last night, Councilor Eddy said that “property located in an institutional setting is a better fit than in a residential neighborhood.”

But the Anna Maria Rest Home is not located in a residential neighborhood.  There’s a vacant lot that was once a car dealership on one side, and a building that used to house a restaurant on the other.  While there are people who live all around it, and while there are purely residential streets adjoining it, the corner of Main Street and Goddard Memorial Drive is hardly a residential neighborhood.

Should there be concerns about folks who might be wandering around the neighborhood?  Probably, though it’s been noted that the Queen Street area didn’t see an uptick in crime.

The two areas I’d expect to see more foot traffic would be from Anna Maria to the convenience store on Goddard (for folks to get smokes and snacks) and down Grandview to the liquor store at the corner of James and Stafford.

But not everyone who’s homeless is a drinker (despite what the gadflies would have you believe), and it’s unclear what sort of behavior would make someone unwelcome at the triage center.

And it is worth remembering that the behaviors so many of us associate with the homeless — including staggering down the street in a drunken stupor — occur in neighborhoods all across the city, including the very neighborhood we’re talking about.

Homeless people do not just fall out of the sky

Many people have argued that a triage center for the homeless should not be located so close to three schools (Sullivan Middle, South High, and Caradonio) and to school bus routes.

Those folks seem to forget that many students at the Caradonio New Citizen Center are refugees, and that 12% of students at South High School are homeless.

The next hearing on the proposed triage center will be at South High School.

If the discussion next Monday deteriorates in the same manner it did last Monday, what kind of message will that send to the homeless students at South High?

Homelessness is not just a problem for Main South or the Village of Piedmont.  This is a problem that affects the whole city.

Much of the online discussion seems to equate being homeless with being a criminal.  We can certainly ask questions and ensure safety for both existing neighborhood residents and those who might use the triage center — but without resorting to rhetoric that only serves to stereotype and fan flames.

Mission accomplished?

Part of the reason we are facing a temporary triage center in our neighborhood is that the city had a three-year plan to end homelessness that was declared a success . . . but which has been, in fact, a failure.

There was no way City Manager O’Brien could have won in this situation.  But he could have done much to minimize the now-inevitable ill will the neighborhood will bear towards him.

The biggest misstep, as I said before, was not including the neighbors earlier on in the process.  As the City Manager should know by now, this allows neighbors to spread their own forms of disinformation amongst themselves because there’s a dearth of real information.

The mushroom policy has been in effect for years now.

They’ve kept everyone in the dark.  If they had kept neighbors apprised of the situation, there would still be opposition, but everyone would be in the same place with same set of facts.

But by keeping people in the dark, the Manager has made sure that neighbors feel the only way they can have any impact on this situation is to take things into their own hands, wherever their visceral impulse leads them.  It could very well get ugly, and for some people this is the only way they feel the city administration is going to listen to them.

And when things get ugly, it’s very easy for the Manager to ignore everyone, or to shut down a meeting.  And then the voices of the more reasonable or more quiet among us are silenced.

Mike O’Brien needs to take a crash course in Diplomacy 101 and polish this turd the best he can.

What we’re seeing here is the difference between a relatively competent manager and a leader.

And this case clearly shows his skill deficits.