The storm that hit Olympia over the weekend of the 14th of October was, per the weather forecasters, going to include 70 mph winds, flooding, and tornado warnings. After the storm had passed, local social media was ablaze with memes joking at the lack of damage in respect to what was predicted, including a ubiquitous photo of an overturned white plastic lawn chair, ironically captioned “We will rebuild.” While certainly not as devastating as some predictions, there was still extensive damage: 18,600 customers of PSE lost electricity. More extreme weather patterns occured off the coast of Oregon, with water spout sightings and a tornado touchdown in an Oregon beach town. A four year old child in Seattle was brought to Harborview Medical Center’s intensive care unit with serious injuries. For most of us with a constructed shelter (apartment and house dwellers), this storm seemed overblown by the meterologists.
But this isn’t the whole story: in the wind and deluge that wracked downtown, a crew was hard at work, coordinating an all-volunteer group to provide shelter to more than 150 local homeless. The First Christian Church (701 Franklin St. SE) that has been used as a temporary sheltering place for the homeless became a three-day-and-night operation, providing food, supplies and a dry warm spot out of the heavy rains for individuals and families in need. This was accomplished by Just Housing—a local movement that speaks, acts, and advocates for justice in housing and safe options for those without—and the compassion and generosity of First Christian Church in opening its doors and space to the city’s most vulnerable.
Earlier that week, Just Housing had actually been before the Olympia City Council with homeless community members asking the Council to address the inequity and suffering that our homeless people face on a daily basis as well the rising rents and shrinking work hours of those being pushed towards homelessness.
One woman shared how she had to “hustle” for hours beyond the 15 a week she was being scheduled at her job in order to make paper for herself and family. Another woman spoke of the piss pot that she used at night because the city did not provide bathroom access overnight and she didn’t want to urinate in the streets. A man shared that he had been ticketed and jailed for sleeping in a downtown business doorway, and then, because he could not pay that ticket price, was jailed for days. The Council responded well. Jim Cooper asked City Manager Steve Hall for statistics on how many people have been ticketed for homelessness, how many were fined and jailed, and what the burden on our justice system that was.
That was Tuesday. Thursday morning a request was made to City Council by Interfaith Works, Capital Recover Center, and the Family Support Center, among others, to open a suitable shelter space—possibly the Olympia Center. Just Housing would organize and provide experienced volunteers. That morning First Christian Church opened its doors as a shelter for the day and later stayed open all that night. The storm was off shore, and around 4pm, after exchanging of many emails, it was discovered that Steve Hall, despite support from a majority of the Olympia City Council, stated the city would not be opening the Olympia Center or any other a building to shelter the homeless during the storm. No other local, county or state governmental body stepped up to address the storm and protect those who would be left outside, defenseless against the weather.
Several core members of Just Housing then met with staff at First Christian Church and, after many hours of coordinating and planning, they were able to put together a shelter that would stay open until 5pm Sunday and for the Salvation Army to offer a place afterwards.
Cheryl Selby and Steve Hall both brought donations to the shelter; I did as well—5 trays of cup noodles, two cans of ground coffee, and four boxes of pastries. When I arrived, I parked on the opposite corner to the church property, and the rain was in full force. During the twenty seconds or so it took me to get my meager contribution unloaded, the heavy rain had soaked through both of my coats and I could already feel a chill seeping into my skin. Walking across the street felt like walking under a showerhead fully clothed, and the downpour obscured my vision. As I approached the building, a man in a worn black raincoat saw me and ran up quickly to take my load. Together, we briskly entered and I followed him through a large foyer full of chairs and tired people, and finally into a bustling kitchen. The place was crowded, and while there was comfort in the warmth and victuals being provided, the occupants had exhaustion in their eyes. They had a place to stay for now, for the weekend, but what would happen after this was far less certain.
When I returned to my car, I was cold, and wet, and grateful that I had a car to warm up in. That I had a place to go, to drive to, to be for as long as my job lasts. I do not want to imagine what it would be like out on the streets in this weather, in a world where people like me can afford to joke about a storm that could have been so much worse for the people who took shelter those nights had not the committed social organizations and movements stepped up to bear the burden the City could or would not. But they still live in a storm, a crisis, every day and night, rain or shine. This issue came into focus for me and others over the weekend, but it has been here this whole time and it continues to this day, this very moment.
So what do we do? We work together and we get involved. We need policymakers and powerholders to stand with or support those who have solutions to offer. And we need to remove punishments and systems that remove the humanity of those who have been left out on the streets. All Olympians deserve to be safe. We are all worthy of basic human needs. To understand the toll of stress and trauma that people without homes—or in danger of losing them—have expressed, is to understand that they need healing, they need opportunity, and they need it now.
Please contribute to First Christian Church: their facility needs some plumbing repairs due to the usage-related stress of having so many in that space for so long. They gave to the community in its time of need, and we ought to return the favor. :http://www.firstchristianolympia.org/give-online/
To get involved with the Just Housing movement, check them out on FB: http://www.facebook.com/JustHousingOly
Boudicca Walsh is a local trans activist and writer. She is a member of the Thurston County Progressives and head of Olympia for Transgender Equity.
Reflections on the last 100 hours
Earlier today at the emergency shelter we were anticipating a reporter and photographer from The Olympian coming in. Tyler Gundel was to be the point person for #JustHousing. And I said to her, “I know this is a dumb question. But how did this all get started again? I truly do not remember.”
Now that I’ve been at home several hours and gotten some sleep, I am beginning to recall.
It started as a conversation Wednesday night with some Just Housingorganizers at Bread & Roses, a #CatholicWorker House here in Olympia. In particular, it was the urging of Selena Kilmoyer, longtime Bread and Roses resident, longtime shelter volunteer/advocate, noted old lady always down for the cause. “We have a storm coming in, and vulnerable people outside,” she said. “What are we going to do about it?”
The next day, First Christian opened up, just for the day we were told. Mary W. Ybarra and Selena held it down together, while many voices and service organizations pressed the city or county to open a public building as emergency shelter, particularly Meg Martin and Danny Kadden of Interfaith Works, Shelley Slaughter of Family Support Center, Pastor Amy and the board at First Christian Church, and leadership staff at Capital Recovery Center (Josh Black, Jordan Morris, Ann Rider).
Despite majority support on city council to open a public building such as The Olympia Center, the city manager declined, and no local governing body came through for the vulnerable.
Seeing no one else step up, First Christian Church decided to open for the night (and eventually all weekend). #JustHousing took on the task of recruiting and organizing volunteers to staff what turned out to be a rapid-relief emergency shelter with a 24-hour kitchen and free supply store, thanks to the generosity of so many of you in the community.
Volunteers included individuals totally new to this scene, and of course longtime advocates from IFW Shelter, EGYHOP, Drexel House, CRC, CYS, PiPE and others.
We’ll be at First Christian until 5pm Sunday. Salvation Army will open for overflow shelter tomorrow night.
It’s been a heckuva 100 hours, but we all pulled off something amazing thanks to direct action, heart, vision, know-how, and our commitment to each other as a #BelovedCommunity.
I believe our local decision makers have some answering to do once this storm blows over. I also believe this event showed we can never depend on, nor defer to, prevailing authorities when it comes to keeping each other safe.
May we live to see the day when shelters are seen as an odd artifact of a less enlightened day, because we’ll all have realized that real, permanent, decent, safe housing is a birthright of us all, for the sole reason that we share this beautiful magical planet together and no one has more claim to safety and survival than another.
The storm is almost over, but the need for justice is not. We need you and your voice and your gifts, in ever-evolving ways.
Renata Rollins is one of the core organizers of Just Housing and a former downtown Olympia ambassador.