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Opinion | A view from the Harbor

On June 3, KGHI radio in Grays Harbor broadcast the passionate talk that Reverend William Barber had delivered at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on May 1.  Some listeners had attended the original gathering of the Poor People’s Campaign, but it was helpful to hear to Reverend Barber’s words again, in light of a ruling by the Aberdeen City Council prohibiting sitting or lying down on sidewalks.

Aberdeen City Council members had voted 8-4 to prohibit anyone from sitting or lying down on the sidewalks and streets of the downtown district.  The ordinance was prompted by business owners and some residents who object to people sleeping in doorways. At the council session where the ordinance was approved, it was stated that it would improve tourism prospects and be good for downtown businesses. The Council President who proposed the measure was quoted in the Daily World as saying “I have a right to go shopping. I have a right to be safe.”

Who or what is derelict?

It’s clear that the ordinance is meant for people who have very few options in life.  At one time, they were called “derelicts” and some people may still refer to them that way.  As Rev. Barber pointed out, and as we all know, we are experiencing a time in our country where there is such income inequality that many of us may find ourselves derelict. That is a very important discussion we must have.

But I actually want to point out a related issue that city leaders in Grays Harbor don’t seem prepared to address at all: the issue of  “derelict” buildings.  I believe there is a connection between these two problems, the “haves” and the “have nots.”  Police officers can now issue a civil infraction to anyone who is sitting or lying down in the city’s business improvement district.

We are ready to punish the victims of our societal failures, but we do nothing about the people who own the dozens of buildings in our towns who create safety issues and contribute to social breakdown by allowing their property to deteriorate.

Why do you think that is?  Because the owners are people of property?  It’s okay to require people of no means not to lie down on the sidewalk, and to sweep them off if they do; but not to require building owners to repair and renovate their properties?

Buildings left to fall apart

Many downtown buildings in disrepair—as well as empty lots where buildings used to stand — are owned by people who live in Grays Harbor County.  How is it that they have been allowed to evade responsibility for their property? Many business owners have done a wonderful job of fixing their buildings and we all cheer them on.  But too many buildings are left to fall apart—we have lost too many beautiful buildings to car lots and empty fields.

I’ve complained about this many times and been told there isn’t any way to force building owners to keep up their property.  Why not?  We are forcing indigent people not to rest on sidewalks but we can’t force a property owner to keep up derelict buildings that make our downtowns unsightly?

Empty lots and decrepit storefronts

We want people to stop in our towns and shop in our stores.  I don’t have to point out what our towns look like with all the decrepit store fronts, which have nothing to do with people sitting on the sidewalks.   When you drive through downtown Aberdeen, and Hoquiam to some extent, you can’t help but see the empty lots, derelict buildings, and newer slapped-together buildings with no architectural integrity.  Try turning up into the residential areas, however.  You might also be amazed at all the lovely homes, many of them historic, that are clearly cared for.   It is unclear to me how people who live in homes such as these can allow their public places to fall apart.

Once again blaming the victim

I believe it is not only a reflection of lack of community and civic pride, but more importantly, our unfortunate habit of blaming the victim instead of looking to those in power, both financially and electorally.  We seem to refuse to hold accountable those who are really responsible for our decline.

Homelessness is on a rapid increase in all our communities.  This is a direct result of our failure as a society to address income inequality, lack of mental health treatment, lack of family wage jobs, economic and environmental injustice, racism, and the impacts of capitalism.

Before we punish those who have no power to fight back, let’s look at what is really causing our downtowns to fail and do something about it.

Linda Orgel lives in rural Grays Harbor County on the south shore of Grays Harbor Estuary. Along with her partner RD Grunbaum, she is active in community groups fighting for environmental, social, and economic justice. 


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