Thursday, November 30, 2006

Time to Dig Trenches

The sidewalk ordinance passed. Albeit with some alterations...

Beginning in February, it will be illegal to sit, lie down, or panhandle within 6 feet of the edge of a building downtown. This law, however, will only be in effect between 7 AM and 10 PM, allowing the homeless to seek shelter under the awnings at night. People will also be allowed to obtain permits for busking within the 6 foot zone.

So the law isn't as bad as it could have been. It doesn't ban necessary survival functions for the homeless. But that doesn't make it good.

My good friend and fellow Bread & Roses community member, Rob, offered this explaination of what makes the new law bad:
The city is STILL taking the sidewalk away, and telling homeless people that they can rent parts of it if they can play an instrument, and that they can use it after all the normal people are tucked away in their beds. That's telling someone they can't be a part of the community if they don't have something to offer. That's wrong.
The law is still segregationist. It still limits the poor, who as a class are defined by social marginalization, from participation in community.

We need to stop this law from going into effect. There are a number of organizers who are now looking into the possibility of dragging the new law through the referendum process. We'll be looking at opportunities for litigation.

Mostly, though, we've got to work even harder at empowering and enfranchising the homeless.

For more information on anti-homeless laws around the nation, visit the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Problem with Social Services

In July of 2001, I started volunteering regularly at the Bread & Roses soup kitchen. I loved the pace of work in the kitchen. The mass quantities of food and dishes required us to work briskly, but there were always good conversations and smiles as we worked. Most of the faith communities in the area took rotations for meals, so that on Monday there might be a Buddhist group cooking, and on Tuesday a Catholic team. The guests always helped with the dishes.

The staff of Bread & Roses lived together at the house on 8th Ave. The staff was made up of a handful of young people who offered one year commitments through Brethren Volunteer Services, Selena, a middle aged woman who had left the Carmelite order for the Catholic Worker, and a handful of people who had moved from homelessness to volunteer positions with Bread & Roses.

The “administrator” for Bread & Roses was one of the latter, an impassioned man named Gordy Ebner. Gordy was an odd looking fellow with a long face and thin grey hair pulled back in a pony tail that reached the middle of his back. He wore a long beard and his hooked nose supported a pair of wire framed spectacles. Gordy could be picked out of a crowd by the ridiculous “M.C. Hammer” pants he wore, usually decorated by florescent green geckos or tie-die. Gordy could speak eloquently about our obligations to fight poverty and injustice. He had a powerful charisma that was, no doubt, what landed him in the position of Bread & Roses’ leader. Many of the guests followed Gordy like ducklings lining up behind their mother.

Unfortunately, Gordy was also terribly irresponsible as an administrator. He was abrasive toward those who disagreed with him. He mismanaged Bread & Roses’ funds horribly. His burning desire to help all of the poor exceeded his judgment, and he committed Bread & Roses to projects it was incapable of operating. Many of the guests that he brought on staff were active, violent addicts.

The atmosphere at the soup kitchen reflected Gordy’s influence. It had a definite charm about it, and there was a strong sense of community. Everyone knew each other. It was also deeply marked by illness and depravity. Drug dealing was rampant. Fights were frequent. Ambulances had to be called regularly, and the cops circled the block like vultures scoping out their prey. The cops even wandered through the kitchen, uninvited, from time to time. They wouldn’t speak with anyone, not even the staff who approached them, but just walked around, staring people down.

The atmosphere at the soup kitchen was the inevitable result of providing a very large scale service in a non-authoritarian atmosphere. The large scale of the work required a kind of factory style, impersonal feeding system. Guests formed a line one hundred people deep for a plate of food served across a counter. There was usually only two staff on duty to keep the peace. The volunteers and staff were good hearted, kind people who genuinely cared about the people they were serving.

Unfortunately, caring isn’t enough. The care one feels for another must be communicated for it to make an impact, and it stretches from difficult to impossible to shower authentic compassion on one hundred people at once. The hardships of street life and the hurts of the guests overwhelmed the abilities of the staff, so that the culture of the soup kitchen community became ill.

Many social service agencies would respond to this illness with a set of hard-nosed rules in an attempt to maintain the law and order necessary for effective provision of services. The staff of Bread & Roses, however, had too much heart to degrade the guests with such authoritarian measures. I don’t think it was well understood yet, though, that the factory style, large scale system of the kitchen had undermined the personalist approach of Bread & Roses and degraded the guests in just the way that the staff were attempting to avoid.

It’s too bad, really. It is hard to describe how ambivalent I felt about the old kitchen. On the one hand, the acceptance and openness of the staff to anyone in need was the closest thing to real social justice I had ever seen. I also loved the guests, and delighted in the joys of their community. But the attempt by Bread & Roses to serve beyond its own capacity was taking a toll.

Many of the social services across the country are operated in this way. The overwhelming need for food, shelter, clothing, and health care pushes the people who care to attempt almost heroic feats of charity, to shoulder an unrealistic burden that ought to be spread out across a broader portion of the population. The failure of these heroic attempts to make any real change has become a target of those who hate the poor. The culture at our soup kitchen was the kind of thing that conservatives could point at as the licentiousness caused by liberal, bleeding heart, do-gooderism. And the business community of Olympia did just that.

First Day at Bread & Roses

I had an urge one day in mid-July of 2001 to walk down to the local soup kitchen and offer a hand. It was hot outside, not quite sweltering, but the midsummer Puget Sound kind of hot that brings out the life in things. I invited a roommate, Jesse, to walk downtown with me, and strolled out the door.

I had never been inside of Bread & Roses. I ran a few 9-1-1 calls there when I was working for the ambulance company, but we always did our work there on the sidewalk outside. It struck me as a run-down kind of place, with lifeless grey concrete walls and big tinted windows. There were no signs on the outside, nothing to identify the purpose of the building but the milling crowds of the poor smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk.

When Jesse and I first stepped through the door, we were confronted with a writhing sea of people. A little girl squealed as her brother chased her down an aisle. A tall, thin black man wearing a beret, a corduroy vest, and a badge emblazoned “sheriff” stood squarely off against the flatware tray, yelling obscenities and threats at the silverware. A line of hungry people stood behind him rolling their eyes and urging him to move along.

There were about 25 or 30 tables in the room, with four or five seats per table. Beyond the dining room, at the back of the building, a long counter cut the room. There were heaping trays of food along the counter, and a number of little old church women wearing white aprons and food handler’s gloves stood behind it armed with serving spoons and cutting knives.

I walked to the back to help serve the food. The line moved quickly and it was very busy for about 20 minutes, and then things began to slow down. A kindly looking middle aged fellow with glasses and a knitted wool sweater approached me, and introduced himself. His name was Phil Tenkhoff. He encouraged me to take a plate of food and to go sit and eat among the guests. I was surprised and delighted at this suggestion and I took him up on it.

I have always been shy around people I don’t know, particularly in crowds. In the last couple years I have gotten much better at being outgoing, but I still often find my tongue to be confounded when I’m in unusual settings. I sat silently, uncomfortably, and ate my food, then scurried back to the kitchen to help wash dishes and escape my discomfort.

I set up in front of a dual utility sink where the dishes were being washed and rinsed by a Hispanic man in his 30’s, and he made room for me to offer a hand. He sang a bit in Spanish as we worked, and then began trying to tell me some jokes. He spoke no English, however, and I spoke no Spanish, but I could tell that the jokes were good, dirty ones gauging from his hand gestures.

As the cleaning was wrapping up and Jesse and I were wiping down tables, a wise, stern looking middle aged woman with salt and pepper hair wearing an apron walked up to us. She tilted her head back a little and sized us up through the bottoms of her spectacles.

“Do you need your paperwork signed?” She asked.


“Yes. You’re doing community service, right?”

I was dumbfounded for a moment. “Well, I suppose we are… is there some kind of paperwork we need to do to volunteer here?”

A light turned on in her eyes, and she grinned for a moment. “Oh, well, you’re just doing this out of the goodness of your hearts! God bless you! I thought you must have had court orders.”

I blushed a little when I realized that most people my age don’t volunteer much in soup kitchens… unless ordered by a court to atone for a crime. The funny thing is that a couple of years later, when I was coordinating the Bread & Roses Advocacy Center, I was court ordered to do community service for an act of civil disobedience. This woman, Selena, ended up getting to sign my papers after all.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

In Memoriam - Brooks

Another of our guests at Bread & Roses died this week. His name was Brooks. I only met him a few times, but he seemed like a nice fellow. We'll be holding a memorial service for him this Monday at the Advocacy Center at 1:00.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


This is beautiful... really just perfect. Meta got a postcard advertisement from the Capital Playhouse today: Jeff Kingsbury is SCROOGE, The Musical.

That's right people, believe it. Even as he uses his city council position to hurt homeless people, Jeff Kingsbury plays Scrooge onstage at his job. I wonder if he finds any irony in this?

The play will be showing Nov 30th @7:30PM, Dec 1,6,7,8,13-15 @7:30PM, Dec 2,9,16,20,&21@2:00 & 7:30PM, Dec 3 & 10 @2:00PM and 7:00PM.

I'm thinking of a picket... can you guess the time?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Highlander's "The Young and the Restless" Campaign

The Highlander Research and Education Center has been working with youth for a number of years through "The Young and the Restless" program.

From their website: "The founding principle and guiding philosophy of Highlander is that the answers to the problems facing society lie in the experiences of ordinary people. Those experiences, so often belittled and denigrated in our society, are the keys to grassroots power.

"Highlander serves Appalachia and the South with programs designed to build strong and successful social-change activism and community organizing led by the people who suffer most from the injustices of society."

Founded by Miles Horton, the Highlander has had the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Woody Guthrie as students. The Highlander's programs were the engine behind the CIO union sweep of the South, particularly in the coal mines, as well as for the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s.

Of course, if you want to see popular education at work with youth, you don't have to go all they way to the South. Just check out Partners in Prevention Education right here in Olympia.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Stop Olympia Anti-Homeless Ordinances!

The Olympia City Council is considering new laws that will effectively criminalize homelessness. Included among the new laws is an ordinance that will create a 6 foot buffer zone from buildings in which it will be illegal to sit on the sidewalk. This will push the homeless out from under the awnings and into the gutter, effectively criminalizing their presence in public.

Tell the City Council to stop hurting the poor! Contact the council at or come to the public hearing on Nov 21st at City Hall: 800 Plum Street SE.

Currently Reading:

  • Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America - Todd Depastino

Recently Finished Reading:

  • Blink - Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell
  • Utopia of Usurers - GK Chesterton
  • Orthodoxy - GK Chesterton