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City’s objection to downtown street feed falls flat

Crazy Faith Ministries, a nondenominational Christian community outreach collective started by Ben Charles, feeds their “street family” in a parking lot on State Street every Thursday at 6 pm. They feed an average of 200-300 people per week—primarily those who are homeless or otherwise affected by poverty. Recently they have come under fire from the Olympia Police Department and City Manager Steve Hall for “blocking vehicle traffic and parking, leaving behind garbage, food handling safety, and participant and public safety.”

Crazy Faith has been conducting the Thursday feed at their current location, a public parking lot across the street from the Olympia Transit Center, on the corner of State and Washington, since March of this year. Before that they operated out of a privately owned lot on the other corner of the same block. When they switched to their current location Mr. Charles contacted the city government and spoke with Tom Hill, Olympia’s Chief Inspector and Building Official, to make sure they had permission to use the location, at which time he was told, “You are not breaking any regulations or restrictions.”

On September 27 Paul Lower of the Olympia Police department contacted Mr. Charles to tell him Crazy Faith cannot continue using the lot. The only law Lower cited was the pedestrian interference code, claiming that by congregating in a parking area Crazy Faith is “obstructing pedestrian or vehicular traffic.” When I stopped by the Crazy Faith feed on October 25 to gather information for this article I found that Crazy Faith’s tents were only taking up five parking spots. A small walkway runs through the middle of the largely empty lot separating two rows of spaces by a small concrete barrier on either side. The food line formed between the two barriers, preventing pedestrians from blocking a single car. After getting dinner most folks stood with their plates in the back of the lot, away from vehicles. On the one occasion a car entered the area and, the two occasions cars exited, folks happily moved out of the way causing no disturbance. Although the night I attended has a relatively low-turnout it was clear that the claims of vehicular obstruction were dubious; the feed takes up a portion of one of five large parking lots within a one-block radius, none of which were close to halfway full.

I spoke to Michelle Jorgensen, who leads Crazy Faith’s cooking crew about the food sanitation accusations. Mrs. Jorgensen has a food handler’s permit and many years experience working in restaurants, as do the bulk of her volunteers. All of them wear disposable gloves, switching to a fresh pair whenever one becomes compromised. There was sanitizer on hand and excess food was stored in coolers at the proper temperature. These are the same hygiene standards the state of Washington requires for its food service establishments. One out of two weeks Crazy Faith serves donated Mariner hotdogs, and the other weeks Mrs. Jorgensen and her team prepare meals from fresh ingredients that have been donated or purchased out of pocket.

At the end of each event it is customary for the volunteers and participants, many of whom are parents, to have their children go around the lot picking up garbage. When the children are done the adults double check for anything they missed, throwing away whatever’s left before leaving. No evidence has been found to justify the littering claims. The 4th Ave Tav even lets Crazy Faith dispose of it’s trash in their dumpster, which adds over $100 a month to the bar’s garbage bill, a cost they happily cover.

To the people they serve, Crazy Faith is much more than a feed—it’s a family. Ben Charles describes Crazy Faith as food for the soul; the actual food is second to the love and sense of community fostered by the congregation. Jeremiah Sullivan, a Crazy Faith participant and volunteer of two years, considers his street family to be his “family away from family.” To him the Thursday feed is about livelihood. It is, in his words, “a place I know I will run into friends and, no matter how bad I feel, I will always feel a little better.” For one of the cooks, Heather, it is the part of the week she looks forward to most.

There have been no known incidents of assault, theft, or drug use during or resulting from Crazy Faith’s outreach. This leaves the assumption that City Hall views a large gathering of Olympia’s homeless and low-income populations as an inherent threat to public safety. On October 1 Ben Charles and about thirty members of the Crazy Faith street family attended an Olympia City Council meeting to state their case for continuing the feed.  Several of members of the community spoke on Crazy Faith’s behalf along with Mr. Charles, two business owners, and an employee of Terra Firma Cosmetics, who urged the city to “please not treat these people with the ‘don’t feed the animals’ attitude. It is a basic human right to eat.” Mr. Charles made the point that “Crazy Faith is providing a service that lightens the load of government responsibility.”

Those who spoke against Crazy Faith were using the organization as a figurehead for the entirety of downtown’s homeless population. Melinda Atkinson, a Lacey schoolteacher who lives in Olympia, argued that the homeless population is ruining downtown Olympia. According to her, “[People] are not coming [downtown] anymore, in large part because of the homeless. I am not saying that I think we should[n’t] feed the homeless, but, like Ben said, I understand feeling abandoned and manipulated, but for a different reason. I feel manipulated because we are being asked to feel pity for some people who are changing the way I am able to feed my family. Just like these folks can’t eat for whatever reason, we’re not going to be able to eat and provide a roof for much longer if this type of thing continues. Nobody comes downtown.”

This is very similar to the rationale used by Randy Morlan, owner of the Euphorium Salon & Spa on 4th and Franklin. According to Mr. Morlan, “By having the services in downtown Olympia we are encouraging loitering, which has cost my business immensely. In the last five years I have lost 20% of my business because no one will come down past dark, and a lot of people won’t come at all. It’s because they’re hounded by panhandlers and groups of people that are scary to them… I am not against the homeless. I want you people to be taken care of and hopefully find your way in the community. I have been here my whole life and all I know is, by the concentration of those people downtown, they’re forcing people out of my business.”

It is peculiar for Mr. Morlan to conflate his loss in business over a five-year period with a feed Crazy Faith has been doing for less than half that time. Furthermore, his salon closes at 5:30pm, half an hour before the once-weekly feed begins. Other salons, such as Jamie Lee and Company, located on the same street as Euphorium, stay open until 7 pm and do not have trouble booking clients in the evening.

The city government seemed to give more credence to the claims by Morlan and Atkinson than those directly related to Crazy Faiths outreach. Thanking Mr. Morlan for his opinion Councilmember Roe emphasized that, “It’s about the manners in how people treat each other. Those getting fed by Crazy Faith, in turn have to have courtesy to those who are trying to shop and just be citizens downtown.”

Mr. Hall also told Crazy Faith that they need a permit to conduct their feed on city property, a statement that contradicts the information Mr. Charles was given by City Inspector Tom Hill a month prior. According to multiple witnesses Mr. Charles spoke with Steve Hall and Mayor Buxbaum after the meeting to inquire about the permit he would need in order to continue the feed. They were elusive about which permit it was, the process Ben would have to go through in order to get it, and if such a permit even exists. The document in question seems to be the city’s “temporary use permit,” but this permit requires the applicant to be a business. Crazy Faith is not a business, nor is it a legally recognized charitable organization or nonprofit. It is merely a loose collective of individuals who perform charitable outreach, making their get-togethers public assembly, which is protected under the first amendment. Tom Hill has since stated that he is working on developing a citywide parking lot use permit to regulate situations such as this. The consensus among Crazy Faith is they are not breaking any laws, but the city government is now rewriting the laws so that they will be.

An email exchange between Mr. Charles and Mr. Hall would seem to confirm this. On October 8 Ben wrote Steve requesting “the city to issue a formal written notice prohibiting Crazy Faith from utilizing the location at State and Washington as well as the law that gives the city the authority to do so.” The reply Mr. Charles received did not honor the request or provide any new information:

I trust that you are trying to do the right thing. I think a formal process for identifying violations of the law is the least productive approach. I can tell you that your activities violate the requirement for a temporary use permit under the City’s land use codes and your interference with parking operations and use of sidewalk violates the City’s Pedestrian interference ordinance.

My hope was that you would see that underlying these legal issues is a greater concern about public safety created by your activities.  I am confident that you do not want to see someone get hit by a car while rushing across State Avenue, nor do you what your good deeds to lead to a confrontation in the parking lot between users.

So my direction is clear. I am saying only that you may not use the lot at State and Washington. It is unsafe to continue to do so. I sincerely wish you well in your efforts to feed the hungry.

Steve Hall has repeatedly declared that he is only against Crazy Faith doing outreach in their current location but not against the feed itself. Several members of City Government have stated that they may approve of the feed at another location, some even expressing interest in helping find Crazy Faith a new spot. They have yet to chime in with suggestions. For Crazy Faith the new location would have to be downtown because that is where the people it serves are concentrated. Moving the feed away from downtown would not move the homeless population with it; they would just be making the food less accessible to the people it benefits. According to Mr. Charles, “Crazy Faith goes where we are needed. Where we go is our Church. We meet people where they are, on their terms, and bring the love.”

City Hall has made an ongoing attempt to uproot downtown Olympia’s homeless population. The issue with Crazy Faith is just the latest example. Last January twenty homeless youth began sleeping in a covered area in front of City Hall to escape the winter cold. The following month the Olympia City Council passed an ordinance that forbids folks from sleeping on city-owned property. Steve Hall’s rationale was that the homeless made city employees feel unsafe. At the time City Hall vowed to find new solutions to serve the homeless community, but in the intervening months this has not been the case. By leaving the people nowhere to go, City Hall has been relying on private organizations to fill the void. It does not make sense to outsource the well-being of a large sector of your population to nongovernmental entities and then crack down on those groups as they step up to the plate.

Coercive tactics do nothing to address the roots of economic inequality that lead to Olympia and many other urban areas around the country having a disproportionately large homeless population. If the city wants to reduce homelessness they should be providing resources to aid and uplift those in poverty. Attacking organizations that do just that is counter productive and only perpetuates the tension between the homeless and the officials elected to safeguard the community of which they are a part. I spoke with Darren Tamble, a member of the Crazy Faith street family, who summarized the situation aptly. “The city’s tired of the homeless problem but they’re not doing anything to help. They’re down to build a new sculpture in front of city hall with a garden. They’re willing to redecorate their front yard as they try to stop people who are helping.”

In the intervening month Crazy Faith has continued their outreach and the City of Olympia has taken no further action. Even if the city continues to pursue the shutdown, Mr. Charles has vowed to continue being there to feed his street family. “The feed will continue either way. It’s a necessity for the community. The impact without us being there will be far greater. What are we doing that is so wrong? There are no heaps of trash. It is a peaceful gathering. It bums me out to think a person would look at this and not see the bigger benefits. This is not an isolated situation for street families in Olympia. It is happening and growing.” Ben believes that City Hall will resume the crackdown once the ballots have been cast in November’s election. Until then, bon appétit.

Jordan Beaudry has a pen in his pocket and a passion for social justice. 

 

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