Monday, February 05, 2007

Open Letter to Olympia City Council and Staff

Dear Mayor, Council, and City Staff:

I do not often write to the City on issues of concern to me. I know that you all are very busy people, and besides that I’ve got enough opinions to fill a library. I must, however, take a moment to share my concern and disappointment regarding your reactions to the new tent city, “Camp Quixote”.

Several months ago the homeless people of Olympia began gathering together for community discussions. They talked about their concerns and fears regarding the decreasing availability of public space for their use and the increasing hostility they were experiencing from the daily Olympian, the police, the City, and the general public. They were particularly concerned about the proposed sidewalk ordinance and the impact it would have on their community.

In the course of their discussions, the homeless community resolved to undertake a campaign of nonviolent direct action in the tradition of the various civil rights movements of the last 50 years. This was a very serious decision and was not entered into lightly. Please allow me to explain.

Classism is as real, as pervasive, and as hurtful as racism and homophobia. For ages, the homeless have endured such pejoratives as “bum”, “transient”, and “vagrant”. They have been beset from all directions with the opinions that they are lazy, criminal, violent, dangerous, irresponsible, and incapable.

The homeless have been outlawed in almost every city in the nation, by means of “quality of life” laws banning sleeping, sitting, loitering, urinating, panhandling, and carrying blankets. The supporters of the homeless have been attacked with laws criminalizing the public feeding of the homeless. The homeless have been exploited by payday loan companies and day labor outfits that charge for transportation, safety equipment, and check cashing so that the pay often falls below minimum wage.

Our social service system also contributes to this persecution. The homeless often find that when they do as they are encouraged and go in for services, they are maltreated by hostile, belligerent, and condescending social workers. Service administrators encourage the maltreatment of the homeless through stereotype driven policies that create barriers to services. The disabled must work full time at proving that they are incapable of doing so. Working families are forced to attend humiliating classes for “job preparation” in which they are instructed on how to dress for job interviews. Access to higher education, which is the most effective ticket out of poverty, is barred to the poor by the same welfare program (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) that claims to move people from dependence to independence. The mental health system often punishes or refuses to serve people due to behavioral problems related to their untreated or under-treated mental illnesses.

Hate crimes against the homeless are not uncommon. The National Coalition for the Homeless documented 84 violent hate crimes against the homeless in 2005 alone. The homeless have been stabbed, beaten, set on fire, raped, poisoned, and run over with automobiles. Several years ago, while working as an EMT, I responded to a call for a homeless man who was viciously and repeatedly stabbed by a pack of teenagers, right here in Olympia.

It is not difficult to observe the mentality that drives the persecution of the homeless. Commentators on the Olympian’s website, encouraged by the newspaper’s slanderous editorials, have made such statements as the following:

These people are a disease.

These bums do not fit any characteristic of "civilized”.

More than half the time, these people sit in front of you & have their pity party hoping you'll believe their performance worthy of an Academy Award. They lie, they cheat & they steal and want you to feel sorry for them while they're doing it.

Poor People's Union... AKA: PPU... PPEEEEEE UUUUUUU sums it up pretty well I'm sure!

Start arresting the turd balls!!!

Drug addicts, alcoholics and general scum of the earth breaking more laws to suit themselves regardless of what the majoirty of society votes for. Hey loosers.....get a job, be responsible for your actions, have some self respect, pay for your own way in life and then maybe you won't have so much to complain about.

I passed at least half a dozen of these "waste of human life" begging me for my hard earned money… These worthless souls have chosen to be lazy and a drain on society. I could care less if they freeze to death.


The solution is simple. The City Council should buy them all bus tickets to Hanford where they can all become radioactive. When they try to come back to Olympia they can all be denied entry because the city is, as everyone knows, a nuclear free zone!

Just give downtown to the sodomites and bums. Oh, wait a minute. They've had it for years.

I wouldn't allow those dirty pigs near my dogs.

There is only one way to deal with these people, run them out of town, period!

If you wonder why the homeless community has resorted to such a drastic measure as direct action, please observe that the passage of the sidewalk ordinance is understood by the street community in the context of everything I have written here. It was the proverbial straw on the camel’s back.

The City Manager was quoted in the Olympian as saying, "It seems like a terrible way to start a conversation with the city about more help with the homeless… It seems like a poke in the eye."

You must understand, however, that this is not the beginning of the conversation. The homeless poured their hearts out to you at the public hearing last fall. But you did not hear them.

You might point to the new Drexel House, and to your offer of $200,000 towards services, and say that you have done so much for the homeless already. Yet you must understand that they are not asking for money, but rather for dignity. And it is likely that they will not find it in the services that this money will fund.

The Poor People’s Union has indeed followed all of the appropriate steps for a non-violent campaign. They attempted dialogue. They discerned, contemplated, planned and prepared. And now, as they have been squeezed out of the parks and libraries, and even off the sidewalks, they are taking direct action to meet their needs.

The pages of history are filled with such stories of the struggles for liberation. We find in the death of Socrates, the Exodus from Egypt, the persecution of Christ and His followers, the labor movement, Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement, the women’s liberation movement, the black civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement the same narrative repeated over and over again. It is the narrative of a people, robbed of their dignity and treated as sub-human, who show the courage to take a stand in service of a vision of a world built on fellowship and love.

People in positions of power play an important role in this narrative. We have, on the one hand, Pharaoh, Herod, and Bull Connor. On the other hand are Jethro, Joseph of Arimathea, and Lyndon Johnson.

It is my understanding that you have resolved not to negotiate with the Poor People’s Union. Please reconsider. Please ask yourself: “Which role will I choose to play in the story of liberation?”

I know you can do the right thing.

The Poor People’s Union has three very basic requests:

1. A safe and permanent site to live while in transition following the model set by Dignity Village in Portland.

2. A “service review board” comprised of service recipients to ensure that people are receiving services that respect their dignity and humanity.

3. Representation at the city level regarding matters that affect poor and houseless members of the community. (Please note that this is different from your willingness to listen to advocates. The street community wants you to be willing to enter into dialogue directly with them.)

Please honor their requests.

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