by Travis Mateer
I’ve had some conversations over the past week which have given me some new insights (and new concerns) regarding Missoula’s response to its worsening homeless (and housing) crisis.
Like most Missoulians, when I heard homelessness was going to be addressed by an INCIDENT COMMAND TEAM, I didn’t fully appreciate what that signified. I didn’t understand that ICTs emerged from the need to better coordinate responses to natural disasters, like wildfires, and mirrors the hierarchal structures of military regimentation.
With this in mind I did some research to see if other municipalities have adopted an ICT approach to treating people like a flooding deluge of water or spreading threat of fire and, sure enough, a much larger municipality in California DID adopt an ICT approach to managing homelessness during the pandemic. From the link:
On an upper floor of the San Diego Convention Center, above huge halls where several hundred people have been sheltering nightly during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a nerve center.
Staff members from various government agencies and nonprofits run the day-to-day logistics of the shelter, organized as one unit, using the Incident Command System, or ICS, a nationally standardized management hierarchy commonly used for natural disasters.
The system helps coordinate and assist dozens of people working for nonprofits, the city and county and other agencies involved in the massive homeless shelter operating at the Convention Center since April.
What seems to make this use of an ICT structure different than normal applications of Incident Command during a natural disaster is that its leadership is a pair of city bureaucrats. Here is Deputy Fire Chief Chris Heiser explaining this new use of ICT:
“In my career with San Diego Fire-Rescue, I’ve seen the ICS system deployed successfully for many natural disaster and relief efforts, but never for a homeless shelter during a health crisis,” Heiser said. “San Diego has proven that this model can be applied and adapted for even the most unique circumstances and be successful in achieving the desired objectives.”
What makes this circumstance unusual and different from, say, a massive wildfire response is that this incident management team is not completely composed of people certified to run an ICS, Heiser said.
Though Heiser and some other firefighters are certified to respond to the biggest disaster incidents, the city first chose its chief compliance officer, Matt Helm, to fill the incident commander role in the shelter and its library director, Misty Jones, to be the deputy incident commander, said Heiser and city spokeswoman Ashley Bailey.
While there are legitimate reasons that seem to warrant trying this approach, like the jurisdictional conflicts that arise when homeless camps spread across different patches of land, homelessness is NOT a flood or wildfire, with an easily identifiable trigger-event necessitating a response, and a clear point in time when the emergency/military structure of an Incident Command Team is no longer needed.
And THAT, I think, could be a very big problem.
In LA, Sheriff Villanueva is ALSO looking to trigger some political emergency powers to address their homeless crisis:
Sheriff Alex Villanueva held a press conference Wednesday addressing the public about the ongoing issue and possible ways to address the crisis.
Villanueva said a letter was sent this morning to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors urging them to declare a local state of emergency in order to address the homeless crisis.
By declaring a local state of emergency, the county will be able to apply for funding from FEMA. The sheriff said resources in LA County are extremely limited.
“It’s a national disgrace. We are the wealthiest nation in the planet and we have such an enormous problem with homelessness and it’s a local tragedy,” the sheriff stated.
Ah, yes, there could be more opportunities to get more FUNDING if there is a more clearly defined EMERGENCY that bundles various institutional sucklers together under one quasi-militant leader.
There is much more to all this, like the refusal of the Supreme Court to hear Martin v. Boise. Here is the homeless advocate perspective on this “win” and what it means:
“Despite the doom and gloom of the appellants and those who joined them in filing amici, this ruling is a win for everyone,” said Eric Tars, Legal Director at the Law Center. “Cities can still address encampments on their streets, they just have to do it in constructive ways that reduce harm and actually help end homelessness. Public health and public safety are best maintained by making sure everyone has an adequate place to live, not by putting homeless people in jail or giving them fines and fees they can’t pay.”
Inaction from the Supreme Court, combined with an unprecedented reaction to an overly-hyped pandemic, has created a petri-dish of experimentation for local municipalities. Add a pre-pandemic housing crisis (and more reckless central-bank money printing) and, well, you have what we have happening in our streets, and our parks, and our underpasses, and our jails, and our ERs.
Stay tuned here for continued coverage of this developing story…