When Homelessness Is Defined As A Disaster To Fight, Like Floods And Fires, A Military-Styled Response Becomes Justified

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…

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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2 Responses to When Homelessness Is Defined As A Disaster To Fight, Like Floods And Fires, A Military-Styled Response Becomes Justified

  1. I understand via a mutual friend’s forwarding to me of an email you sent, that you’re seeking information about the Incident Command System. For an initial familiarization, the Wikipedia article is pretty good. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incident_Command_System
    As it happens, I have about 30 years of ICS training and experience, both didactic, and as a responder in several events, incidents, emergencies and disasters. I’m trained to the 800 level of the FEMA/Emergency Management Institute coursework required of management personnel,
    but all of my experience has been as a volunteer in the Logistics or Operations Sections, as a Team Leader or team member in communications, SAR or medical units. I was a certified Oregon Emergency Services Worker, a certified Search and Rescue responder, a non-combat Fire and Rescue volunteer, a NERT responder, a CERT responder, a Red Cross Disaster Services responder, Radio Officer for a Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service unit, an Amateur Radio Emergency Service Assistant Emergency Coordinator, etc.

    ICS is an appropriate template for managing an incident such as a large number of persons without shelter, in need of same along with food, sanitation, health care, etc. The “Hoovervilles” popping up all over the U.S. are attempts to comply with the Boise ruling by providing safe and adequate sleeping space such that municipalities’ anti-loitering/sleeping ordinances remain enforceable. They also are appropriate responses to the disaster conditions under which tens of millions of American residents live. When an earthquake, flood, tornado, hurricane, etc. displaces massive numbers of people, causes evacuations, destroys homes, and so on, ICS is immediately implemented, emergency declarations and proclamations are issued, responders respond, materiel is transported, auxiliary communications links are established, and money is released.

    It’s only recently that the emergency management paradigm has begun to be invoked to deal with the exploding numbers of Americans driven into disaster conditions in the ordinary course of capitalist class warfare. The “safe spaces” for urban camping more and more are taking on the appearance of FEMA disaster camps (or UNHCR refugee camps). This raises a number of questions I’ll return to, in a moment.

    First, I’d like to note that it’s a good thing that local officials are realizing the need for more effective management of the situation, because what we’re seeing now is a scintilla of what we’re going to experience. We are past the climate change tipping point. The release of millennia worth of trapped methane as permafrost melts, means that even if ALL human contributions to the greenhouse effect were to totally cease today, the effects of what has been released, and of what will continue to be released as methane (20× more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas) keeps escaping from permafrost, ensure that it’s going to get hotter and hotter and hotter and hotter and hotter for another 150+ years, with vast areas of Earth rendered fallow and uninhabitable.
    A large percentage of the hordes coming across the southern U.S. border already consists of climate refugees. With 100+°F temperatures already occasionally being reached North of the Arctic Circle, the notions of civil society with a modicum of non-autocratic rule, and at anywhere near the standard of living to which we’re accustomed, become ludicrous. There are only two outcomes: (1) survival under a decentralized, cooperative syndicalist confederation (I give this slightly less chance of happening, than of you emptying Lake Michigan with a fork); (2) Mad Max.

    Returning to my state of denial, I’ll pose some of the questions which I’d bet are among those swirling in your cerebrum:

    (1) Can persons swept out of banned urban camping spots, into sanctioned camps, be compelled, as a condition of remaining there and not being driven out of town or jailed, to cooperate with semi-official organs such as the Coordinated (Re)Entry program? That is an interference with personal liberty. If a person declines to cooperate/participate, can the person, consistently with the Boise case, be forcibly removed from the camp, and arrested/jailed for further urban camping in violation if the anti-loitering/sleeping/camping ordinance that is constitutional only because the sanctioned camp is there?

    (2) What about the SCOTUS Donaldson decision of the 70s holding that mentally ill persons who so not pose a danger to themselves or others, cannot, consistent with the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, be involuntarily committed to institutional custody? May mentally ill persons who aren’t dangerous to others (and only in a chronic sense dangerous to themselves) be compelled to undertake behavioral/mental health treatment as a condition of being permitted to remain in the urban camp and/or moved along the TIF Railway to the “game-changing” paltry numbers of ‘affordable’ dwellings produced after most of the public money is put through the private profiteer

    (3) What about guns? An MCA Title 10 Montana Military, Disaster and Emergency Services statute forbids any state civil or military authority from confiscating firearms from any person otherwise entitled to lawfully possess firearms, even if so ordered by the Governor under an Emergency Proclamation. (It’s ambiguous whether guns could be confiscated if the Governor exercised his/her statutory authority to impose martial law in a prescribed area during an emergency, under the loose standard that the Guv deems martial law necessary to deal effectively with the emergency). Assuming that no martial law is imposed at the sanctioned encampment, the individual tents or other minimalist shelters of the residents are clearly dwellings under both state and federal law. Federal courts have struck down National Park rules banning firearms, as applied to park visitors sleeping within park boundaries who possess a firearm confined to the vehicle or other shelter in which they sleep. So, can the City, or a public/private partnership, ban and confiscate guns from the dwellings? I’m thinking that because of no way to secure them from theft, ironically the City would
    have to mandate that firearms be carried upon the person, or prohibited entirely if the encampment is deemed City or County property and the gov’t subdivision so ordains.

    If the answers to questions (1) & (2) are “Yes,” then we are indeed going to see the proliferation of what can only be referred to as concentration camps for the underclass and climate change refugees. Police will, by force, relocate houseless persons to these sanctioned encampments, and it’s not difficult to envision them having cyclone fence/concertina wire perimeters.

    I was told today by a friend that he was in a cab the other night and the cabbie told him that the police who evicted campers from the island in the Clark Fork, did so with guns drawn. Now, the Mayor declared that sweep “a mistake” and has declared an “incident” under which the city/county incident command paradigm will be implemented. The truly weird thing about this is exactly what you identified — the folks at the top echelon (if your reporting is accurate) don’t meet the foundational standards for responding to an ICS—applicable incident. If that’s so, it’s a head-scratcher.

    Ring me up if you want to analyze this further.

    BTW, Portland, OR was hotter than 99.98% of Earth today.

    — Kevin Hunt

  2. Pingback: Understanding The Narrow Scope Of Missoula’s Incident Command Team Approach To Finding More Homeless Shelter Locations In Missoula | Reptile Dysfunction

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