June 18, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 25

Dr. Wes

The real problem is not a spike in homelessness but spikes placed to keep the homeless from sitting

By Dr. Wes Browning

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Now that president and ceo of the Downtown Seattle Association (dsa) Kate Joncas is a deputy mayor, I am reminded of two key relevant facts.

One, I don’t know what the dsa does. Two, I don’t know what a deputy mayor is.

References say a deputy is someone cut off (pruned) from the population to receive the power of an office without holding said office. So a deputy mayor is not a kind of mayor, but a kind of non-mayor, one that has been deputized or deputed.

The person selected ought to be good at handling the power of the post. I saw a picture of Mayor Murray deputizing Joncas, and he looked pretty happy about it, so I have to suppose that she’s done some good things as ceo of the dsa that makes her a good choice. This runs up against that other issue of what is the dsa and why do I care.

All this week, I was reminded why I care what downtown business associations do, by the sudden spate of news about anti-homeless spikes being implemented all around the world.

In case you’ve missed this, what is happening is that everywhere in the world people are pretending to “solve the problem of homelessness” by setting spikes in sidewalks, under bridges and even in benches.

In 2008 a German artist Fabian Brunsing created the “Pay & Sit,” a bench that is studded with metal spikes until you insert a half euro piece in a coin box, and then the spikes retract for a minute or so. When your time is up an ugly alarm lets you know it’s time to feed the box again or get moving, you worthless ne’er-do-well who can’t spring for another half euro. The piece was clearly intended as satire.

It looks like there are thousands of people out there who saw Brunsing’s idea and decided it should be real. From Shangdong, China, to London, to Canada, spikes are showing up in public places as people take an artistic conception that originally meant to lay bare the nature of human cruelty and give it flesh.

The tactic fails on its own terms. If one ever shows up in your neighborhood, here’s all you do: Get some friends together. Round up some materials for making a low retainer wall and haul in some quick setting cement. The act of covering spikes with cement costs way less than putting them in. There is no way the creeps who put the spikes in can win that guerilla contest. There are more of us. Power to the people.

There’s been good news mixed with all the bad in all this. When Montreal’s mayor discovered anti-loitering spikes in a sidewalk downtown he immediately said, “Les pics anti-itinérants sont inacceptables!” and promised they’d be gone in a day even if he had to remove them personally, and they were.

In Seattle we’ve had our own approach to cruelty. No sidewalk spikes yet, but a long steady decline in the number of benches in the city, coupled with a cruel law that forbids sitting on sidewalks even though benches were removed, and then, when the sidewalks were unavailable, laws that make it easy to drive homeless people out of parks, which were their last refuge.

The dsa has had a part to play in all that. If the dsa hasn’t been behind the no-sitting ordinance and the no-homeless-people-in-parks regulations, who has? If they’d been allies with us against those laws, could those laws have been enacted?

Another possible piece of good news: There’s been some relief in the war on benches. The Seattle Parks Department has installed three “parklets” in the city — basically glorified public sidewalk seating. And they’re promoting them to adjoining businesses, which are sponsoring them!

In other words, businesses in Seattle are stepping up and recognizing the need for public amenities again, and are willing to support them.

This makes me, for today only, the most optimistic grump in the world.



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