It is said that a journalist with a personal stake should not report on a story. I disagree. I think that someone with a stated point of view is much more trustable than someone who is hiding their agenda behind a veil of ‘objectivity’.
So full disclosure: I am about to report on a story in which I was directly involved and upon which I have a point of view.
While everyone is a hypocrite on one level or another, there are highly varied levels.
First, the context: I became involved in activism on the homelessness issue about three years ago when I was at a meeting of political activists (I forget now what the meeting was even about) and our meeting was crashed by a local homeless gentleman known as Dude Man. Dude Man then related a story of insane police harassment that he was suffering and—literally in tears—he stated that he was at the end of his rope, had no idea what to do, and he begged us for our help. I somewhat reluctantly agreed to look into the matter since I was technically homeless myself at the time. (I was sleeping in my truck.) Upon doing so I discovered that the Olympia police—representing the nearly omnipotent armed might of the state—were conducting a reign of terror not only upon Dude Man but upon the most helpless and vulnerable members of our community, i.e. mentally ill homeless people.
All my life I have loathed bullies. All my life I have defended the weak from the strong.
These people’s lives were already problematic as it was, and suffering constant violent police harassment just made the problems worse for everyone involved—this was absolutely the last thing in the world these people needed. I was so profoundly outraged that I formed an organization called Citizens in Violation of Illegal Laws [CIVIL]. CIVIL then decided to first target the busking-laws since these were the most outrageous and unpopular of the many laws specifically designed to harass homeless people. CIVIL then organized the two ‘Busker Parades’, wherein we surrounded city hall right before a city council meeting with about 80 people playing illegal music to greet the arriving council members and express our contempt for their law.
The city subsequently rescinded their busking laws—but then simultaneously passed an exponentially more problematic Sit-Lie Ordinance that basically makes it illegal to be homeless in Olympia. Thanks to ‘Sit-Lie’, the homeless are now forced to hide from the police in camps out in the woods like animals. These camps tend to be very cold and very dark and very wet this time of year. Predators are free to prey on the homeless kids with near impunity—and indeed, robberies, rapes, and even murders are regular occurrences in these camps. However, all the privileged white liberals of Thurston County no longer need to be made ‘uncomfortable’ as in the bad old days when—after leaving their nice safe warm homes—they were forced to step over people sleeping on the downtown sidewalks. Now that the homeless are out-of-sight-out-of-mind out in the woods then evidently everything is now good as far as they’re concerned.
As for Dude Man, though, things didn’t work out so well. Dude Man, in fact, has committed suicide.
I have heard several city council members say that solving homelessness should not be the city’s task. I agree. However, I will task the city government with not making stupid ignorant classist laws that kill people.
Next, the full disclosure concerning my personal involvement in this story: I became homeless in 2008 after all of the profits from my mobile espresso stand went into the coffers of Exxon Mobil (you may remember that this was the year they began charging $4 per gallon for their gasoline). Then my espresso machine broke and by that point I didn’t have the $3,000 to fix it. Then my daughter’s ex-boyfriend stole all of my equipment along with a $1,500 generator that I had recently purchased to operate my stand. As a result of this chain of events I became homeless in Olympia for three years. I ended up vending a ‘street paper’ out of Seattle called Real Change, which is a newspaper that focuses upon issues of low-income and homeless people. Real Change wins prestigious journalistic awards on a regular basis and they have some truly talented weekly columnists. They educate people about the actual facts and issues concerning homelessness rather than leaving people with the common stereotypes that often have little to do with reality. Selling the paper provides an alternative to panhandling for people who have no income but would rather sell a quality product than beg from strangers on some freeway ramp—even though I would make much more money on the freeway ramp.
While Real Change isn’t the complete solution for homelessness, it does work very well for people who are mentally capable of operating a small cash business.
Bottom line: I am one of several hundred people who are no longer homeless thanks to Real Change. It works.
I have been vending Real Change at the Olympia Food CoOp for five years now, but I recently moved from a rent-free caretaker situation and began paying rent —which meant I needed to sell a lot more papers per week. Especially since there is now another Real Change vendor also working at the Co-op, I figured that location was pretty much saturated and thus I needed an alternative spot for at least a couple of days per week.
Top Foods, Safeway, and Fred Meyer all flatly refused, so I gave up on the corporate chain stores.
Thus, I approached Kevin Stormans, the owner of both the Thriftway and Bayview grocery stores, which are the only grocery stores located anywhere near downtown Olympia. Kevin Stormans is also a right-wing political activist. He was one of the business owners that sued the state because he didn’t want to be forced to sell the ‘Morning After Pill’ in his stores. He is also a leading promoter of the oppressive laws against the homeless and he was a leading proponent of the new Sit-Lie Ordinance.
Anyway, I explained Real Change to Mr. Stormans and I asked permission to vend Real Change one day per week at each of his stores.
Being very familiar with the profound hypocrisy of right-wingers (and left-wingers too, for that matter) this was exactly the answer that I had been expecting and I was prepared; I then conducted what is known as an ‘ambush interview’. I whipped out my Works in Progress press pass and informed Mr. Stormans that in that case, I was going to put on another hat and ask, as a journalist, why, after his endless expressed concerns about the problems associated with homelessness, that he would subsequently refuse to support a program that has proven to be an effective method of ending homelessness?
I might also add that my request would cost him absolutely nothing.
His only reply was that this was his ‘policy’. This, of course, is the answer that you give when you don’t have an answer.
I have found in judging people that things which often mean little in and of themselves are often indicative of deeper insights. Ralph Stormans, the founder of Stormans Inc., could always be found in the store and he knew all of his employees’ names. Kevin Stormans is virtually never seen in the stores and he knows virtually none of his employees’ names.
Everyone needs to follow their own conscience, but I am going to now avoid shopping at Bayview or Ralph’s Thriftway.
Dana Walker spent 28 years traveling in North America, 6 years in federal prison (ostensibly for marijuana; in actuality for refusing to sell his friends to the feds), and 3 1/2 years in Olympia hurling verbal barrages of sarcasm at the Machine. He’s currently a Real Change vendor and a caretaker at Media Island. He is also the author of numerous novels and a radical bi-weekly political newsletter