A Note to Olympia City Council Regarding Hate Speech

Text of an email I sent to council this morning. If you agree, please send them a note as well – citycouncil@ci.olympia.wa.us


Mayor Selby and Members of Council,

At the February 7th Olympia City Council meeting, during public comment, a citizen referred to people experiencing homelessness as cockroaches.
“Cockroaches” is a commonly used slur against this segment of our community. It strips people, who are suffering, of their humanity, and makes us think of them as a disgusting pest, to be stomped on. I’ve heard it used since I got started as a street outreach worker, about a dozen years ago.
This doesn’t represent my values, nor the values I’ve come to expect from Olympia, and I don’t believe it represents the values you hold, as a governing body, or as individuals.
I ask you to rebuke the use of this hateful term, and other such speech against this unprotected and marginalized group of people, and reaffirm the values you set in December in both the Charter for Compassion and Olympia Sanctuary City decisions.
I also ask that at future meetings, if hate speech is used against any group or person, that you immediately call it out, and remind the speaker of this community’s values.
I thank you for the work you do, the time you put in, and specifically for being innovative and taking the lead in our region on the issue of addressing poverty. Though we have a long way to go, the work is made easier by being inclusive, not exclusive.
Sincerely,
Rob Richards

Camp Quixote Ten Year Anniversary Retrospective

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.

What’s Next?

The sort of gatherings we saw across the country yesterday typically would shake a new presidential administration. Even your least favorite former president would set an agenda to reach out and build bridges, knowing that their power is a careful and precise balance and they can’t ignore half the people, but have to be responsive.

We can’t count on this administration to do that. The man at the top might be literally incapable of empathy or introspection. We know he doesn’t listen to advisors much, and so even reasonable voices around him will likely be ignored. We actually have to assume the worst.

I think we should keep all of our options on the table. There are particular issues that should be hard lines in the sand. We should define those now, and hold every elected official to them, by any means necessary…

…a Muslim registry is completely out of the question and while going down and signing up for it in solidarity is a nice gesture, and I’ll do that too, this is one issue where we get out our torches and pitchforks and go shut things down until they buckle…

…same with any sort of legislation or policy that renders people “illegals” or takes a hardline white-nationalist stance against immigrants or any people of color….

…abortion rights, the limiting of birth control, or women’s rights to choose. This isn’t just about access to healthcare, this is about subjugating over half of our population…

…any governmental move, especially on the local level, that targets a group of people based on their socio-economic status, ie, anti-homeless laws, regressive taxes, and including inaction on providing simple basic needs when the solutions are apparent…

These are just few of my lines I will hold, that I’d urge you to help me hold, whatever it takes.

What else?

Love is the Greatest Resistance

It’s been hard to watch, but sometimes you have to look your enemy in the eye, square your shoulders and steel yourself. Resistance is a word thrown around a lot these days, and it has been in my head a lot also.

Resistance happens in a thousand micro-decisions we make every day. It happens in our small actions. It happens when we stand with our neighbors when they’re struggling or targeted. When we treat people with love. In his speech, DJT said he’s going to put America First. MY first act of resistance is to choose to put Love First, and challenge you to join me. And love is an action, not just an idea.

Resistance begins in each of us. Decide to resist and you create the spark. Then find a way to cultivate that spark. You might gather your friends to make care packages for the warming center, volunteer for a local candidate who will fight for justice, pick an elected official and meet with them, tell them what you expect of them, and hold them to it. Get creative, get engaged, and build a movement.

Don’t let the fog and the spectacle of national politics distract you. Local and direct action is the quickest and most impactful way to make a difference. We don’t need to wait for someone on the national or state level to save us. Help is NOT on the way. It’s just us. Whatever way you choose to resist, I support you. We’re all in this together. I love you.

A Third of Olympia Residents Can’t Afford to Live Here

Average rents surge past $1,000 per month in Thurston County

Using VERY round numbers:

Olympia has a poverty rate of about 20%. That’s about 10k people at or below poverty. For an individual, poverty is $12k. A household of 2 it’s $15.5k. To make enough money to reach the benchmark that supposes a sustainable household budget, 1/3 of your income toward living expenses (which is supposed to include utilities as well), you’d need to take home $36k to afford $1k/month – just to afford the rent.

VERY roughly, about 33% of households cannot reasonably afford $1k a month in rent.

We need to address this now, otherwise we’re never going to make a dent in homelessness.

We need empathetic and innovative leadership at City Hall. If our current City Manager can’t execute, and our current council can’t lead on this, then it’s time to make some changes.

A New Way Forward for Olympia

Why we need to change our system of government in Olympia. And How.

“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made,” quipped Otto von Bismarck

Over the past decade, I’ve seen a lot of sausage made. I’ve learned a lot about how our local government works from serving on various advisory bodies, including:

  • Human Services Review Council (Inter-jurisdictional)
  • Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (Olympia)
  • HOME Consortium citizen advisory committee (Thurston County)
  • Community Renewal Area advisory committee (Olympia)
  • Olympia Planning Commission, Chair, Comprehensive Plan Subcommittee

The three years I spent on the Planning Commission probably gave me the most insight into how things work. It was a thorough indoctrination into how our city operates, and how politics play into the decisions made. It taught me a lot about how things get done behind the scenes. On nearly every issue that came before us there was community or political pressure to choose a particular path – especially when it came to issues such as shorelines, density, and any new development projects. You almost always had to make a choice that would anger someone, somewhere, because they disagreed with you, and sometimes vehemently.

At its worst, it was the most frustrating, maddening experience I ever had. At its best, it was some of the work I’ve done in my life that I’m proudest of. More than anything, I learned that we come up with better solutions if we work together. What helps me is to not take disagreements personally, but to step back and remind myself that simply being at the same table makes reciprocity possible.

Olympia has challenges. We have the highest concentration of poverty in Thurston County with no plan to confront it. We have youth and young adults pushed around from one place to another for generations, and no youth center. We have people with untreated mental illness being preyed upon on our streets without low-barrier services to point them to. We have severe drug addiction problems, and all of the ancillary issues that come with it, and we don’t have detox beds for people who want to get clean. We’ve got major population growth on the horizon and we don’t have a housing strategy. Those are just a few of the issues we need to address as a community.

During my time on the Planning Commission, we held many public hearings, on issues ranging from urban agriculture to Quixote Village. For larger items, like the Comprehensive Plan, there might be months of hearings, forums, workshops, etc., all intended to glean as much from the public as possible before we started crafting our recommendations to council. It was often the case that upon releasing our final recommendations to council, members of the public would be upset by portions of it. We would hear from them that we didn’t listen, or that we didn’t do enough to include the public in the process – essentially they were telling us that they didn’t feel heard. Sometimes, the people who were expressing this feeling were also at every, or most, of the meetings, and spoke on the issues at length throughout the process. Somehow, even after providing input and taking part in the process provided, they didn’t feel heard. I believe there is something inherently wrong with a system or a process if at the end of the day people don’t feel included, heard, or like their values and input resonate in the final outcome.

We would react to this by having more and, what we thought at the time was better, public process the next time around – the assumption being that more meetings and forums means more access, means people will feel included. In hindsight, it was like trying to fix gridlock by adding lanes to a street, you just create more room for gridlock. People weren’t feeling engaged in the process, and we just gave them more opportunities to not feel engaged. At the end of the day, more isn’t better – we need quality not quantity. I believe we need to take a serious look at how our local government is structured in order to increase representation and engagement of citizens all over our city. Just like lower student/teacher ratios make for better functioning classrooms, a more direct democracy on the municipal level can begin to fix our community gridlock.

Where We Are

Currently we have what’s referred to as a council-manager government. Basically, this means that our city council is a purely legislative body – they set goals and policy, and city staff executes them. That’s where the “manager” comes in. Our city manager is like our CEO. Let’s say council decides that in next year’s budget, a certain amount of money be allocated to redoing sidewalks Downtown. The City Manager would then relay this new priority to the Department Heads and they would develop a plan to meet council goals. The city manager is ultimately responsible for carrying out these priorities.

Our present City Manager, Steve Hall, has been in his job for 12 years – add 13 he spent as Assistant City Manager, and that’s 25 years of one person being at the top of our Executive Branch in Olympia. This is not an elected position, the city manager is hired by our council. To put it in perspective, it’s as if our Congress were to pick our president – and pay them quite a lot of money, with little public input, and no term limits.

Our system is also what’s referred to as a “weak mayor” system, because our mayor has no more power than any other council member when it comes to voting on any particular issue; no veto power, no power over the process, just one vote like everyone else on council. They have a bit of extra responsibility in that they facilitate the meetings, and do some agenda setting, but other than that, unless you have a very compelling personality, being mayor doesn’t give you any extra advantages.

Finally, all seven of our city council seats are what is referred to as “at-large.” This means they’re elected city-wide, and all of the seats are meant to represent the whole city, as opposed to smaller geographic areas within the city.

Money

What we currently spend on the executive and legislative levels:

City Manager salary: $153,000/year

Assistant City Manager salary: $135,000/year

SUBTOTAL – $288,000/year

 

Mayor salary: $19,968/year

Mayor Pro-Tem salary: $18,304/year

Councilmember salary: $16,640/year x5

SUBTOTAL – $121,472/year

TOTAL – $409,472

 

Restructuring

The following is a framework for how I feel we need to restructure our city government in order to be ready for population growth as well as to eliminate the gridlock created by disengaged citizens.

Districts – the city should be split into 5 districts – Central, NE, NW, SE, and SW – with an individually elected District Manager from each district.

olympia-districts

This is crudely drawn with a giant crayon, but generally the N/S splits would be at I-5 and Harrison and Downtown, South Capitol, Wildwood, etc would split the E/W districts.

Mayor – $80,000/year – The mayor should be a full-time position elected city-wide. They would serve as the chief executive, direct the administrative structure of the city, and appoint/remove department heads (with council oversight). They would be responsible for managing day to day operations of the city, and promoting council goals.

 

Deputy Mayor – $70,000/year – The deputy mayor should also be full-time and elected city-wide. They would preside over the city council, but would only vote in the case of a tie. Their primary role would be to serve as the liaison to district councils, the PBIA, and other interjurisdictional bodies. They would serve as mayor if the mayor is absent.

 

District Managers – $30,000/year x5 – There should be five council seats, each representing, residing in, and directly elected by their district. The positions would be halftime. Each council member would be responsible for appointing one resident from their district to each of the city’s advisory bodies. District Managers are responsible for appointing one district resident to each Advisory Commission, as detailed below. The District Manager and their appointees will form a District Council that shall meet no less than monthly, and serve as a direct conduit between city government and district residents.

Total council salary would be $300,000/year. This of course doesn’t include the cost of taxes and benefits, which I assume would add around $60,000, still bring the total salary cost under what we’re spending today.

Advisory and Oversight Commissions

The following describes a restructure of our existing advisory bodies in order to better fit our new system.

Each advisory body should shrink to 5 members, with one representative from each district. Each member would also be a member of their respective district council. Additionally, advisory bodies should be tasked with oversight of the city. If there is a grievance, or incident, a citizen should be able to go to the relevant advisory body with their grievance and be assured that their grievance will be reviewed. District councils would also be a venue to bring your grievance and have it forwarded to the relevant advisory commission.

Planning and Sustainability Commissionstewardship, development and maintenance of the City’s Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Code. By holding public hearings and discussing issues and proposals, the PSC develops recommendations to share with City Council in hopes of creating a more prosperous, educated, healthy and equitable city.

Budget Advisory Board – participates in City Council budget deliberations, advises Council regarding proposed amendments to the budget, drafts annual Capital Facilities Plan recommendation, and assists the Council in reviewing budget plans against results to date.

Citizen Police Oversight Committee – improve police accountability, promote higher standards of police services, and increase public confidence, in order to perform four primary functions:

  • Gather community concerns about police services.
  • Develop policy recommendations to address patterns of problems with police services and conduct.
  • Review and advise on the complaint handling process.
  • Hear appeals from complainants and officers and publicly report its findings.

Human Rights Commission – help eliminate discrimination and bigotry, to strengthen inter-group relationships and foster greater understanding, inclusion and justice for those who live, work, study, worship, travel and play in the City of Olympia.  The Human Rights Commission is guided by the principles embodied in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Public Involvement Advisory Council – charged with developing policy proposals to strengthen and institutionalize the City’s commitment to public involvement.

Arts & Culture Commission – is the steward of public investment in arts and culture, and works to create an environment in which the arts and culture of the region can flourish and prosper.

Utility Review Board – advise the City Council, on behalf of and for the benefit of the citizens of Olympia, on water, sewer, stormwater, and solid waste financial plans and rates.  The Board will advise Council on the establishment of fair and equitable rates, consistent with customer needs, legal mandates, existing public policies, operational requirements, and the long term financial stability and viability of the utilities.

While I feel these commissions cover most of the issues that we need public oversight and input on, there will be emergent issues, and instead of trying to make the issue fit one of the advisory bodies, we should always lean toward forming ad hoc community advisory committees to study and make recommendations to council. This will ensure that we don’t overwork our community volunteers already serving on commissions, as well as engaging even more community expertise in our process.

Conclusion

The process for making these changes would require a charter campaign and a vote of the citizenry. I won’t go into the technical details, but really, it’s not too terribly difficult a thing to do. Making it happen will increase community engagement, create a clear accountability structure, and make our city government more responsive to ALL.

Olympia: Ten degrees to the left of center in good times. Ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally. Twenty degrees to the right of center if it doesn’t.

Tax-friendly Olympia voters defy expectations by rejecting initiative

By every measure, Olympia voters should have passed Initiative 1. I won’t rehash the data, but all signs pointed to a fairly easy victory. But as we now know, this wasn’t a normal election. Our country, county, and even city, took turns to the right. Emboldened now are voices that progressives like myself have been actively fighting for some time. Also emboldened are those who tow the status quo, who look for reasons NOT to be agents of change. They will likely use this election as leverage toward a new set of community values, a little colder and less compassionate than before. When they’ve done this in the past they’ve invoked representative democracy to justify their actions, but they no longer have to claim they’re representing a “silent majority” because they have an election to point to now.

Before I jump into the politics, I’ll give you an example.

Who uses 24-hour toilets in downtown Olympia, and where should they go?

Public bathrooms in Downtown Olympia is an issue the community has been talking about for a long time. I’ve personally been involved in probably a hundred hours of meetings on this one issue in just the last five years. I personally advocated for two different solutions, to two different problems.

First: people who are experiencing homelessness don’t have a place to take care of basic needs that most of us take for granted; bathroom stuff, showering, laundry, etc. My solution is one that is proven to work and has been replicated: We need to bring an Urban Rest Stop to Olympia. This is a real no-brainer and the only thing standing in the way is political will (I’ll get to that).

Second: all kinds of people hang out downtown at night. No matter where they live, they need to use the bathroom. 24 hour bathrooms are common in most cities I’ve been to. One example, and the solution I pushed for in my years of work on this issue is The Portland Loo. It’s practical and affordable and the only thing standing in our way has been political will (I’ll get to that).

So why do we consistently fail to move the needle toward solutions? Why do so many years go by without any tangible progress? Both of these solutions are proved, replicated, and can be plugged in, no setup required, just fund it and they will come.

I think the reason is that we haven’t been electing people who feel compelled to do something, whether it’s because they’re not affected by the lack of these amenities, or haven’t developed a sense of sympathy toward the people who are suffering in the cold, without a bathroom, shower, or place to warm up.

Let’s look at the language used when our officials talk about the public restroom issue.

“One of the cons is, do you want to draw street-dependent people to the Harbor House and playground?” – Olympia City Manager Steve Hall

I don’t think you have to be nearly as experienced in social justice advocacy as I am to see what’s wrong with that. I’ll break it down:

“street-dependent people” – this language puts their condition before their humanity, making “street-dependency” (a term that flummoxes me) their defining characteristic, and all of the stigma and stereotypes that go with it.

It’s also implied that “the Harbor House and playground” are for “regular” people, this suggests that people who are “street-dependent” are the “other”. This “otherizing” makes it a whole lot easier to ignore their needs.

“do you want to draw…” – his language here tacitly suggests that these human beings are vermin or pests that we don’t want to attract.

Finally, there is an overarching implication in this quote that all “street-dependent” people are the kind of people that we don’t want near playgrounds. This is the perpetuation of another stereotype that has consistently been used to fight any increase in services for people in need in our community. Remember The People’s House, when opponents screamed about sex offenders, then the House’s organizers said they’d screen out sex offenders, and opponents screamed, “yeah, but… sex offenders…” The truth is, as of census data from a few years back, the average person experiencing homelessness in Thurston County was a single mom in her 20’s with children from 3-5 years of age.

“I’m not sold on the Artesian Commons as the best location for a public restroom. That action would reinforce that site as a street-dependent facility. The future of that park is actually better when viewed as something that’s available to the general public.” Olympia Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones

As is his style, Jones is softer and more careful with his words. His language here, if we look closely, transmits a similar message to Hall’s.

“street-dependent facility” He doesn’t even refer to “people” here, just “street dependent”. That language removes their humanity altogether, sort of objectifying them – and like I said above, that makes it easier to oppose anything that might help the people.

“…general public.” His language here has identified two kinds of people; “street dependent” and “general public.” So the implication is that if you are “street dependent” you are not a part of the “general public.”

I don’t want to belabor the point, just highlight that we see this sort of language used, both aggressively and passively, quite often in our public discourse.

[Disclaimer: I know Nathaniel pretty well, campaigned for him twice, and I know he’s got a lot of compassion and wants to do the right thing when he can. So by calling his language out, I’m not calling him an evil, or bad person. We all learn how to be better because people call us out when our words or actions aren’t up to snuff. Radical honesty is a root of love and respect.]

These quotes are representative of the marginalization of vulnerable people that has become the status quo. These perceptions and words, and the actions they provoke, are the greatest enemy to egalitarianism.

Let’s remember that language matters and whenever issues relating to homelessness are being discussed by our city leaders, these kind of quotes end up in the paper AND we see an increase in hate crimes against people who are homeless.

 

…AND POLITICS…

When time and time again good solutions to easy problems are rejected the obvious common denominator becomes political will. I have experience managing program budgets, I’ve also been a Planning Commissioner and delved into our City’s budget. The thing I’ve learned is that (within reason) where there is a will, there is a way. A Portland Loo is not expensive, and neither is an Urban Rest Stop. We could have had them years ago. We’ve never had a city council that would support them. Let’s do something about that.

In Olympia, progressives have the opportunity to secure a fourth progressive vote, joining Jessica Bateman, Jim Cooper, and Clark Gilman. This would give us a solid progressive majority for the first time in the 14 years I’ve been paying attention. We could do a lot of great work if we can secure that fourth vote.

Our port commission is at an even greater threat right now. E.J. Zita, who has been a champion of progressive values, will most certainly draw a big money opponent this year. We’ll need to muster all we can to help her keep her job on the Port Commission, and to secure a majority there as well. Losing Zita would mean no one standing up to fracking equipment moving through our port and our city, for a sustainable budget, or for a transition to a locally focused economy.

I’m inspired by the work of the Thurston County Progressives. I think the organizing they’re doing is exactly what we need right now. If my schedule didn’t conflict, I’d be at their meetings and getting more active with that group. I urge you to get involved with them if you’re not already.

So… maybe this is a rallying cry, or maybe I’m once again tilting at windmills.

I am committed to helping us elect a fourth progressive to the Olympia City Council, to getting Zita reelected, to being a part of grassroots organizing that is inclusive of everyone and inspires disenfranchised voters to get engaged in the process, and ultimately, do the groundwork to take back our County Commission before too much damage is done to the progress we’ve made on social and environmental issues. I think we owe it to those who have worked so hard for us, people like Sandra Romero, Cathy Wolfe, and Karen Fraser [EDIT: I forgot Karen Valenzuela], to take the baton and keep on pushing. There’s really no time to rest.