There were rumors that the City Council’s Planning and Safety Committee’s all-day informational meeting Wednesday morning was going to be important. The esteemed mayor and our comparatively firebrand formerly newbie councilman Bernie Norvel comprise the Public Safety Committee. The meeting was billed as a discussion of a solution to the homeless problem. A problem indeed. Linda Ruffing, the City Manager, was of course in attendance to take direction from the committee and make happen whatever it was that they might decide to do. But where oh where was the familiar Linda Ruffing of our long experience? The bubbly puppetmaster of local political theater was uncharacteristically somber and strangely detached from the process. Perhaps she was worried that the meeting had been imprudently advertised as an effort to provoke initiative and raise issues. Objectives which would be in contrast to Ms. Ruffing’s established sleek administration of spin. This was not her meeting; it was the Mayor’s and Bernie’s meeting, and whatever was going to happen was not going forward under her masterful orchestration.
Before the 10am meeting I dropped into the formal gardens in the midst of which is our supremely elegant local homeless center to hip a few of the grim refugees sitting around smoking on the Italianate benches amidst the ferns and flowering Irises that things were cooking at Town Hall which might be of practical interest.
Word spread a little bit as citizens at the Enabling Center had morning coffee and hand-rolled cigarettes. Eventually about a half dozen stolid and unthankful clients trickled down and stood self-consciously around the back of Town Hall. Their presence seemed discomfiting to the crowd of social workers and agency functionaries who had been summoned by the Mayor. One was able to observe that the social services suits in attendance do not usually have to deal with The Problem in the flesh, being too far up the food chain I guess. There was no social or conversational interaction between these two symbiotic species. The homeless were hugely outnumbered and entirely improbable in the distinguished collection of administrators of helpfulness.
The hall was full. The all-day meeting was divided into two distinct parts. A very long, quite painful, probably unprecedented inventory of every single agency, bureau, department, or institution that had any bearing or relationship, however tangential to The Problem. That was one part and took all day. The second part consisted of a few succinct and highly perceptive comments that came from the public which only took a few minutes and shattered their pious pretensions like a brick through a plate glass window. You just had to wait all day for it.
Mayor Lindy Peters started it off by informing us that no action would be taken or specifically proposed on this day, the meeting was informational only. This would be a gathering of resources.
He was right about that. The marathon meeting was not a discussion and did not generate any but the most superficial information. Instead the meeting amounted to a doomsday survey of agencies, and institutions targeting homelessness. It became an almost feudal declaration of vassalage and formal membership in the constellation of county agencies and faith groups tasked with doing something or anything in the county with the highest per capita percentage of homeless citizens in the nation.
All came from their appointed agencies to answer four questions posed by Mayor Lindy. Question one: Would your agency participate in a six month study of The Problem? Everyone shouted in the affirmative. Question two: What is it exactly that your agency department, bureau or institution is actually supposed to be doing? That was tougher and they tended to ramble a little. But in general they had canned answers and were only surprised to be asked. Question three: What can the great collective We do other than to give you money to assist you in whatever it might be that is your official mission? No ideas. Last question. What would you think might be done generally to make The Problem less of a problem? More money seemed to be the universal answer, thank you for asking.
The homeless people at the back of the hall were the first to perceive the practical. Ineffectuality of a general abstract accounting and started to trickle out. “Is that Anna Shaw?” someone asked me. It was. “I’m outta here; she holds my life in her hands.” An early defection.
All in all there were 15 declarations of good intention and fervent commitment to cooperation from every agency under the social services sun. It took hours. Gradually the nose counting nature of the meeting became increasingly painful. The City Manager meanwhile gradually sank more and more into herself knowing, as a master of the art, that this was no damn way to hold a meeting. Meetings when they are conducted by the City Manager, which is almost always, are bouncy affairs where any unavoidable imposition of public comment is minimized and affirmative answers to decisions that have been made in advance are eased past the provisional authority of the council or a committee gracefully. As Linda knows, meetings should be fun and easy. There are way too many of them to permit any other approach. To do a meeting right in the manner in which we have become accustomed one must present a selection of information neatly arranged for easy assimilation and immune to untoward analysis or clumsy discussion. This out of the box committee bonanza meeting was a crudely ham-handed rounding up of everybody. It was way too big. It was not graceful. It seemed to imply some expectation of action or change. Quite unfairly, it seemed to imply that somebody might somehow be held accountable for something. The whole format bore at least a whiff of potentially hostile intent. If people started expecting solutions to The Problem rather than problem management things could get uncomfortable.
Since the meeting was encyclopedic and had been opened with an a priori declaration that it involved no particular purpose other than to survey large terrain, the social service leaders stepped one by one bravely up to the microphone. As the routine of questioning got rolling they relaxed a little and I think actually got into it. Everybody likes to talk about themselves particularly when one is rarely asked.
The great meeting ground along at a snail’s pace. The various answers from the diverse agencies became increasingly indistinguishable. Personal commitment and deep concern for those less fortunate was mandatory of course. The many expressions of this concern had little tweeks and variations but they were slight. As the day rolled on, the predictability of sentiment and utter absence of content tended to unwrap their generalities as the platitudes that they were. It was harder and harder not to feel contempt.
After a few hours, I looked around the room, noticing that the greater number of folks from the Enabling Center had wandered off, presumably in disgust. But two young men clearly distinguished by their creative and rugged attire were holding on, still at the extreme rear of the hall, looking displeased and fiercely persistent.
As the meeting wound on and on, the magnitude of resources devoted to the best interests of our least enfranchised citizens got to be slightly shocking. Dog-paddling through the ocean of tedium and piety, the persistent attendees not lulled into insensibility could observe as the structure of agency relationships gradually uncoiled. As everyone already knew, Redwood Children’s Services were revealed as the grand master of financial allocation. The mayor threw a postmortem rock at the hugely discredited antecedent of Redwood, the Ortner Management Group, and provided an opportunity for our new money administrator to roundly declare that the bad old guys are emphatically not the good new guys. Redwood, their chief announced, takes only a paltry 9% out of the big pie for their austere administration.
Nobody had anything practical to say, and that of course was a problem. It was hard to avoid the impression that none of them were doing much. Many references were made to the Continuum of Care, a federal enterprise to herd the cats and thereby streamline exactly the kind of hodgepodge of agencies to whom we were being introduced as they told us one after the other to reduce redundancy. Many of the agency spokesfolks took refuge from palpable ineffectuality in the new Crisis Center which opened recently in Fort Bragg. It seemed a modest achievement for so many agencies to be claiming credit for.
As the meeting wound up and the last of the attendees were adjusting their backpacks and checking their phones in preparation to stagger out into the world, a few determined survivors of the ordeal lined up at the microphone for public comment. Doug Chouteau with whom I disagree on many points, made a succinct summary of what most people had to be thinking. In short, he pointed out that anything at all you do, brings more people to get whatever is being provided, and that if a solution was what was wanted, harnessing all that money to do nothing was not it.
Finally the bitter end arrived. And the two homeless guys at the end of the line and the bottom of all priorities were permitted to speak. They both spoke very well. Rusty Easter, a local rascal and suspected genius (no one can tell for sure), was on his dignity and in their face. He declared himself to be a human being not a number and took a second to blast the lame excuse for action which a number of agency spokesman had just invoked by pointing out that the new Crisis Center had a 72 hour waiting period: If it is still a crisis after three days, I would call someone else. Scott Chapman was the last to speak. Not many people remained in the hall to hear him. He was gravely honest, respectful and concise. They don’t do anything was the substance of his remarks. They keep us like cattle, and despise us as human beings. But Scott, they are trying so hard.