Editor’s note: last Friday morning I was asked by the Council’s communications staff whether I wanted to speak with Council member Tammy Morales about her proposed legislation restricting the removal of homeless encampments, because in the aftermath of last Wednesday’s committee hearing she felt that there was more that needed to be said. I agreed to speak with her, and the interview was scheduled for midday today (Sunday). Obviously a lot has transpired between then and now, and after thanking her for still doing the interview in the midst of so much else happening, I gave her the option to talk about her bill, or the events of this weekend, or both. In the end she chose to discuss both, in what I found to be an insightful conversation. The transcript below is our entire twenty-minute conversation, with light, non-substantive editing to clean it up for print.
SCCI: What are your thoughts on yesterday’s events?
TM: So yeah, I will say that I’m still processing yesterday and just briefly, what I’m thinking about is the centuries of oppression that Black people in our country have experienced. The deep, you know, literally like now in their DNA, the emotional trauma that comes with that. And the fact that we have a lot of work to do to dismantle the structural racism that exists in our country. You know, for our city, for my district, part of what I’ve been talking about for years now is the need to repair the harm done to Black and brown communities. I think for now what thinking about what that means is looking at our budget as we begin our budget conversations over the next few months.
You know, we have to improve community conditions. We have to invest in people, we have to support economic security and housing security and food security and create places where our neighbors can thrive. And I think what we’re seeing across the country over the last few weeks is, you know, not just a reaction to the brutality that our Black neighbors experience, but a fury with the systems that we have set up that we have thus far been unwilling to acknowledge, deeply rooted in racism and we can’t keep doing that.
SCCI: Locally, where do you want to start?
TM: You know, obviously I start with, with my district thinking about the opportunity gap that we have in our district, about the need for educational opportunity for job training, apprenticeship programs, for youth violence prevention, for creating safe places, safe organizations that our young people can engage with so that they have hope, so that they have a path toward educational opportunities, job opportunities, thriving commercial districts, neighborhoods that they feel proud of and that they feel safe in. And as I think about the consequences of that sort of fury, to people’s health, to their community, to their ability to recover, it really is going to take moral courage and political will from our elected leaders to make decisions about investing in people instead of systems that don’t serve.
SCCI: Are there particular systems you’re referring to?
TM: Council President Gonzalez and Council member Herbold have called for a “Committee of the Whole” meeting on Wednesday and have invited the Mayor and the police chief and fire chief, to come and sort of debrief on what happened yesterday. We will have a lot of questions about how events unfolded and why they did unfold the way they did. You know, I was down there, I was at Westlake and there was a very peaceful demonstration listening to speeches for at least an hour or two. And you could hear the chaos happening up on, it looked to me like it was mostly up on Sixth. But it just felt like two really different things happening. And, I wasn’t up there, so I don’t know what triggered the flash bangs, but it just makes me, you know, I just have a lot of questions about, about what happened.
SCCI: As you should. How concerned are you that there won’t be enough information pieced together by Wednesday to have a coherent picture of it? Is that a concern for you?
TM: Yeah. I mean, I don’t expect that we will have, you know, every question answered, but I don’t understand why there is the kind of escalation happening there. You know, the police stood up in riot gear with batons and rifles, like automatic rifles. That to me is really troubling. And you know, we did see kind of a phalanx of, of officers come down on bikes, you know, sort of shoulder to shoulder and looking very intent on, I don’t know, disrupting something and it didn’t look like there was any, it just looked like there was “prepared to be provoked,” and that to me does not speak of being prepared to deescalate. And so I just don’t understand that kind of positioning when at least a large portion of the people that I was in the middle of last night were there peacefully.
SCCI: Okay. Anything else you want to say on the topic?
TM: No, that’s probably plenty. <laughs>
SCCI: OK. Let’s talk about sweeps.
TM: Yeah. So I appreciated your piece. I did read that.
SCCI: There’s certainly room to disagree. I mean there’s so much space to disagree on these things.
TM: Yeah. I will say, you know, that I’ve been clear for a very long time that I just oppose this practice. I think it is inhumane. I think it does not address the real issue, which is that we don’t have enough places for people to go.
SCCI: Let me just ask you, though, in practice for a case where somebody sets up a tent in a school playground or there is an encampment, like we saw, where there seems to be criminal activity that’s based out of it. So is there… I mean, even in the legislation you put forward, there are exceptions.
SCCI: So what is your logic as to when there should be exceptions?
TM: Well, so that’s a good question. I think my real problem with this as a general practice is that it is not applied in those cases only, right? This doesn’t seem to be only about moving people because they’re on a playground or moving people because there’s criminal activity. You know, another component of that is because there’s something happening in one tent or five tents or, you know, whatever, doesn’t mean that everybody should be pushed out. But I am not saying that people should never be moved. What I’m saying is that people are moved for so many more reasons than the exceptions allow. And very often what it seems like is that people are moved because the neighbors are complaining. And because, you know, because property is.. you know, people don’t want to look at poverty. And that to me is not a reason to move somebody when all you’re really doing is moving them across the street or down the street or to another neighborhood and you’re not really helping deal with the problem. And, that’s what was frustrating to me about the conversation that we had on Wednesday, is that the deputy mayor, the folks who came didn’t address the systemic, problem of how the matchmaking happens when they’re asking people to move. Certainly didn’t address the fact that we still don’t have enough places, safe places for people who are chronically homeless to be. And we certainly didn’t talk about, what criteria shouldn’t be used if we’re talking specifically about moving people during COVID. And so, we still have the issue of why removals are problematic, which is that we don’t have enough appropriate shelter space for people. So, I’m happy to have that conversation because that’s really the crux of the issue, right? If we had enough places for people to go, then the removal process itself, isn’t the question, assuming people are being navigated to safe places. If we’re only navigating people to become some other neighborhood’s issue that’s not solving anything. And especially in COVID we really run the risk of spreading infection.
SCCI: How would you like to see the city move forward in creating more safe spaces for people to go?
TM: So we have options, right? That that is something that I’ve been saying and I’m willing to discuss the parameters of this bill, focusing on more tiny home villages, more enhanced shelters, more sanctioned encampments. There are things we can discuss that could serve people better in this time. You know, those are certainly not long term solutions. What I would really like to see is much more affordable housing and more permanent supportive housing. But in the short term right now, while we’re in a crisis and while we have a pandemic, what can we do to move people into space that still allows for some physical distancing and gets people off the street. And I do think that there are things to talk about. We could… the council earlier this year allowed for more funding for more tiny house villages. There is more funding coming through the state where that could be used. So there are things we can talk about. You know, we also need to talk about what changes need to be made to how the navigation team refers people even assuming that there are enough, you know, one of the things we heard from Jessica Kwan was the grind that she has to go through just to try to find a place for one person, you know, repeated phone calls and back and forth and then trying to locate her client and calling the Nav Team again and the spot being gone or reserved or not really available to her as an outreach worker. Because for some reason the Nav Team gets first dibs. So there’s a problem there.
SCCI: But that’s a case where, a year ago or so, maybe a little longer than that there was… I feel like I sort of see how we got to that point though because a year ago, a little bit longer, we were talking about how the navigation team was… even though they’re out there, dealing with these sorts of cases or some cases where it was a strong imperative that a particular encampment that was causing hazards or obstructions needed to be removed, that they didn’t have any better access than anyone else to spaces. So they couldn’t necessarily guarantee a space because they were competing with everybody else. And so there was a change that was made after a bunch of feedback, including getting feedback from the council, to say, okay, let’s reserve a bunch of spaces. It sounds like that potentially has gone too far now to the point where all the enhanced shelter spaces are going through the Nav Team where I think originally it was just the Navigation Center spaces could only be parceled out by the Navigation Team. So I was certainly confused hearing that conversation too because I understand how we got there at some level to make sure that the navigation team had some set of reserved space that they could actually use and make guarantees to people that, “yeah, you really do have a space.” But did we move too far and to the point where it’s now caused greater problems or is it just in part the stuff we’ve been talking about, which is that there is just a critical lack of acceptable spaces, that COVID has made worse by raising the bar?
TM: Well, that’s a good question and honestly, not one I know the answer to, but it is part of what we want to continue discussing, right? Because clearly both could be true. We know we don’t have enough space, but for the workers who are out there trying to provide service to their clients and trying to get people into spaces, for them really not to have any way to know in truth what is available and what is just sort of a “ghost” of a space because the Nav Team is really going to send somebody in there, that doesn’t help them do their job and it certainly doesn’t help it doesn’t help the clients.
So like I said, you know, there are options and I am very willing to have a conversation about how to move in the right direction so that we’re increasing availability, increasing space.
SCCI: What do you think is the barrier? Is it funding? Is it funding and other things? I mean, obviously there’s a funding issue, right? You have to go find the money to do this, but are there other barriers too, or is it primarily just that?
TM: To why we don’t have enough space?
SCCI: Yeah. To creating more spaces.
TM: I don’t know. When I talk to some providers, we have a list of spaces that could be used for tiny home villages for example. We have land that could be used for sanctioned encampments. Why those things aren’t allowed to continue is a very good question. Because we certainly have enough need and that is part of the conversation that I’m hoping to have. Deputy Mayor Fong offered to meet to continue the conversation. So I’ve already asked the mayor and council member Lewis to schedule that meeting so we can begin those conversations.
SCCI: It is your intention for that to be a public meeting or one… I don’t want to say pejoratively “behind closed doors” because there’s a lot of meetings that happen behind closed doors that need to happen behind closed doors.
TM: Yeah. And I don’t know that I… in this case, we’ll defer to Councilmember Lewis as the chair of that committee. But I do think that we need to have the conversation and while I’m not willing to negotiate my legislative authority, I’m certainly willing to discuss the parameters of the bill and to get some of these questions answered about how we increase shelter, why this hasn’t happened already and what the what that matchmaking process actually looks like and where we can make improvements there so that folks are served better.
SCCI: What’s your timeframe for this?
TM: Well, so the next committee meeting is scheduled on the 10th. I am hoping that we have that meeting, at least begin this conversation this week. You know, obviously things might have shifted a little after the events of the weekend, but this is still an emergency, still critical, and coronavirus isn’t going away anytime soon, so we have to figure this out in, my hope would be that we could, at least by the end of June, have something that we can agree to move forward with.
SCCI: Okay. Anything else you want to say?
TM: Nope, I don’t think so.
SCCI: Okay. I really appreciate your time.
TM: Yeah. Thank you, Kevin. Have a nice rest of your Sunday.
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