In the fall of 2006 I had been a live-in volunteer at Bread & Roses in Olympia, Washington for about three years. That’s three years of experiencing and witnessing the direct effects of homelessness in the lives of people whom I had come to care for and love. Daily, they were tormented by predators, police, and policies – all things compounding to make it nearly impossible to recover from the cycle of homelessness. One co-worker described it as “being stuck on the side of the freeway, trying to pull into traffic, but cars keep whipping by, leaving you stuck where you’re at.” Resources were scarce and getting scarcer. Politics in Olympia had shifted toward a very pro-business/anti-homeless track. Getting rid of homeless people was the goal, as opposed to helping them to get off of the streets. This trend culminated in the summer of 2006 in the form of a Pedestrian Interference Ordinance that would strip people’s right to gather in public spaces – namely, our sidewalks – during certain times of day.
As an advocate, I felt powerless – which was a reflection of the powerlessness I saw in the faces of the people I advocated for daily. They were sad, scared, angry, and they didn’t know what to do – the typical thing would have been to just take their lumps without putting up a fight.
People were resigned to being relegated to second-class citizen status. My friend Tim (a particularly vocal member of our little community, who had been houseless off and on most of his life) was angry and wanted to do something about it. He and I had been regularly having a movie night with another Bread & Roses worker, Matt Kellegrew. We would watch political documentaries and movies, and then have long discussions about them and how they applied to what was happening locally.
It was during one of these movie nights, we watched The Battle of Algiers, that the conversation began about a political action in response to the ordinance. The three of us, that night, laid the groundwork for the birth of what would become known as Camp Quixote – a name which I’m proud to say I came up with, as a show of solidarity to a group in Paris, who were involved in a similar tent city protest. They called themselves The Children of Don Quixote. We also chose a name for our newly conceived conglomerate, the Poor People’s Union (PPU), which would serve as the organizing body of the camp.
The first meeting of the PPU was held on a Saturday afternoon at the Bread & Roses Advocacy Center. It drew (probably because of the coffee and pizza) about two dozen people. Matt, Tim, and I laid out our vision to create a tent city where folks could live in community, and work toward a permanent site that they owned, and could farm, free of the pressures of the social service system, able to recover at their own pace. We didn’t know how people would respond going into that first meeting, and I don’t think any of us were expecting the response we received. People bought in almost immediately. The idea that they could be in control of their destiny for once, and not sit idly by while more ordinances went into effect, while they just took it and did nothing – that instilled in people a sense of hope that the future held something more for them, and that they were a part of something; a community, a movement.
We then began having general meetings every Saturday, where we would plan every aspect of the camp. Different people were stepping up to coordinate the committees that would take on various roles in the camp’s management. We had committees handling aspects such as the Kitchen, Security, Camp Layout, and Communications. Each of these committees would meet independently and give progress reports at each general meeting. The camp was coming together, and the PPU was getting stronger and larger by the week. Members of the advocacy and activist community caught wind of what was in the works and offered up support. Those of us who were not members of the street community were very careful to make sure that all decisions were made by consensus and any decision that affected only the street community was made by only members of the street community. We didn’t want local activists to come in and take over, we wanted them to come in and take direction from the campers.
Eventually the Site Selection Committee determined that the best site we could choose would be a City of Olympia owned lot on Columbia Street in our Downtown. As a member of this committee I researched multiple locations, both public and private, before settling on the final lot. We had various reasons why we ended up where we did. First, our fight was with the City of Olympia, so locating on property they owned made sense. We would avoid having a dispute with a private citizen, and all of the challenges that could come out of that. Second, the lot was located in the Downtown core, on one of the busiest streets in Thurston County, so it was highly visible. That provided multiple benefits, but mainly exposure. Thousands of people would drive by every day that otherwise might not have known the camp existed. Many got curious and pulled off to ask us questions. Many of those people came back with supplies or to volunteer. That proved critical, for morale, as well as logistically.
After the PPU consented to the location, we set February 1st, 2007 as move-in day (also the day that the ordinance had been slated to take effect). That gave us only a couple of months to finish our preparations. Supplies needed to be stockpiled, and materials gathered. We spent those final two months busily staging materials and methodically crafting the action plan for move in day.
When February 1st rolled around, we set our plan in motion, first going in to set up the tents. Pallets and tarps were laid, tents erected and waterproofed. Simultaneously, I was coordinating the delivery of two port-a-potties, and the kitchen crew was setting up the kitchen tent, and prepping for dinner. By the end of that first day, we had over twenty tents set up, and we all were able to have a meal together.
Day two brought more people, and more tents had to be set up. The committee in charge of camp layout took on the newcomers and gave them jobs in the camp. Jobs included a rotating 24-hour security detail, kitchen crew, camp maintenance, and clean up.
On day three, we finished staging our materials for the community center that we had drawn up plans for, and the construction crew set to work. They built out the frames for the walls and roof, and just like an old fashioned barn raising, we all helped to pull them upright and hold them in place while others hammered everything together. While this was happening, the kitchen crew had been prepping a huge chicken dinner – a local grocery store had donate a couple dozen pounds of chicken and some other fixings – and veggies donated by members of the community.
That night was one of the most joyous nights I’ve ever experienced. We all ate together, danced, laughed, and enjoyed one another’s company inside of this grand hall that we had built together, as a community and as a family.
I’ve never felt more alive than I did that night. Seeing those faces that for years had been weighed down by the pressure of life on the streets, the constant fear, stress, humiliation – all of that lifted away and you could see their inner beauty shining through, what was inside them, what could be drawn out of a person if we just choose to bring people in, rather than push them away.
The response from the community at large to our presence, at least from our perspective, was for the most part positive. Ben Moore’s, a restaurant on the same block, brought us a huge batch of hot soup everyday – and a “We heart Camp Quixote” sign hung in their window. We were inundated with donations. Blankets, tarps, sleeping bags, warm clothes, food, and much more were coming in steadily. Parents would bring their children down to visit and have conversations with them about homelessness, and why the camp was there.
The City of Olympia, on the other hand, was not as supportive. They informed us that we were trespassing and were subject to arrest and confiscation of our belongings. From that point forward, there was a looming sense of inevitability that the camp could be swept away at any time. We quickly formed an intelligence gathering committee that would monitor the police band and scout out locations where the police would stage for such a sweep in order to have the earliest possible warning we could get, so that we could get people out who couldn’t risk arrest, or might be at greater risk if the police used violence, pepper spray, tear gas, etc. The majority of the Olympia City Council voted to instruct staff to serve notice to us that we were trespassing, and to vacate or they would send in OPD to disperse the camp.
The local media, The Olympian, was equally unsupportive. They ran an editorial urging the City to break up the camp and arrest those who remained.
We knew that the stress caused by the threat of a police raid at any moment was weighing on folks heavily, so we started creating a plan to move the camp. We began exploring many options, including moving to a different lot downtown, or finding a space hidden out in the woods somewhere. Finally, one member of our extended support network had the idea of asking a church, specifically her church, the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation (OUUC). The OUUC board was having a meeting the following evening and our supporter volunteered to attend, and request sanctuary on their property.
When the news came in that the OUUC Board had decided to grant us temporary sanctuary, the news hit the camp and spread fast. People were elated. We began making plans to move the next morning. We arranged for the port-a-potties to be moved and coordinated volunteers to help us start at first light.
It turns out that the City of Olympia had other plans for us.
At 5am the next morning, with everyone except the security watch sound asleep, OPD descended upon the camp in a loud, showy display of their might. An Olympian reporter was on the scene along with a photographer, no doubt tipped off by someone at the city. Maybe Steve Hall, who showed up to watch the festivities he created.
It caused a tremendous amount of stress to the campers, some of whom fled and abandoned their belongings. Others stayed but were shaken and fearful from the shock of such an unexpected and violent awakening. Some of the people who fled weren’t seen for weeks because they were afraid to be seen in public, afraid that OPD was after them.
As morning broke and the shock subsided, our volunteers arrived to help us move things and get the new camp set up. I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment and sharing it with the campers and volunteers. It was the end of the first chapter in what would be a story with many twists and turns.
A couple of weeks later the congregants at OUUC voted to allow the camp to stay. Work began to create structure and formalize the relationship. The City of Olympia got involved, and the Thurston County Health Department, in order to regulate health and safety at the camp. The Panza Board formed, and like the famous sidekick of Don Quixote, was there to support the camp in its journey, not to govern it (in keeping with the camp’s intent to be self-governed), an ideal that has held firm throughout the years.
Personally, I stayed involved with Panza and the camp for a couple of months after the move, and then decided to let it go. It had evolved, there was new energy, and I didn’t want to risk holding it back by taking too much ownership over it. The faith community had stepped up and seemed eager and excited to support the camp, setting up a hosting rotation among them, and working with the City to make a homeless encampment a part of their land use codes. My job, for the moment, seemed done.
Years, seemingly lifetimes later, I had gone to college, was working as Director of Communications at a software company, and my civic engagement had progressed to the point where I had a seat on the Olympia Planning Commission, a body that makes land use and long-range planning recommendations to the Olympia City Council. It was as a member of that body that the camp came back into my life.
The matter before us was whether or not to allow a permanent homeless encampment inside the City of Olympia. I obviously had no problem with it, but my fellow commissioners weren’t all with me. I was in a position where I needed to make sure I had enough votes to float a motion to allow Camp Quixote to have its site. I succeeded, and when the meeting came, my motion passed. It was an incredibly fulfilling moment and one I’m proud to have been a part of. A vision that we all created, all those years ago, of having a permanent site, with little houses and a garden, was becoming a reality.
When the day of the groundbreaking came, I stood on the empty lot that one day would be Quixote Village, and watched my old friend Kevin, one of the original campers, plunge that golden shovel into the rocky soil, breaking ground and initiating the final phase of the Camp’s evolution, I could not have been prouder. I fought tears as I relived in my mind those eight days in February of ’07.
And now on the 1o year anniversary of the camp I think of those beautiful people, so often marginalized and kicked around. They were the bravest people I’ve ever met. They displayed such vigor and resilience and it instilled in me the drive to swallow my own fears and fight harder for them.
The camp succeeded, and is living out its ultimate dream today because we allowed the campers to lead us. That I got to play a small part in the camp’s formation, and then years later another small part in its continued success is something that I will never forget. I will always keep with me the lessons I learned from this experience – especially that the power of love and community will always persevere, and if we draw on the strength of our community in our own times of need, and be there for them in theirs, no obstacle is insurmountable and no goal is unachievable.
Love and Respect.