“This drives people away from my downtown business!”
People who are homeless are not innately more dangerous or threatening than people who are housed. They simply don’t have a house to live in. When we begin to place blame on a specific demographic for any issue, including drops in sales, it is our obligation as community members to stop and think about whether we are enabling unfair prejudices about people who look a certain way. And if the problem is with an individual’s behavior, that should be addressed individually – we all deserve to be judged by our own actions and not by others’. Now, we know it can be uncomfortable for some folks to see people struggling with mental illness and drug addiction downtown, however until our system provides adequate help to those who need it (and it is woefully inadequate in those departments particularly), we don’t deserve to have the consequences of our failure swept under the rug. People have a tendency to not want to address problems until they’re right in front of our faces – displacing folks suffering from systemic issues within our society is just another way of kicking the can down the road. If we’re going to have a vibrant downtown, let’s build it on a foundation of justice and compassion and not at the expense of others.
Lets face the facts: we are a poorer community now than we have been before. Wages are stagnant, not just here but all over the nation. Costs of living have skyrocketed, rents are at an all-time high, and the combined forces of online shopping and real estate speculation have sent a lot of dollars out of our community and into the bank accounts of large corporations. Faced with paychecks stretched thinner and thinner, spending habits have naturally changed. When you go downtown and see unhoused folks all over the streets, you are seeing what it looks like when a community is poor. It may feel uncomfortable to acknowledge that we are the ones that are struggling and not some outsiders looking for a handout, but it’s true. We are a community where many are now fighting to survive – and when we push houseless people out of downtown we’re simply keeping up appearances. These problems are systemic, and that means we will need the will and resolve to make big, fundamental changes to address them. If our current system creates suffering and poverty, we do not deserve the luxury of ignoring it, of pushing those it affects into the woods and the greenbelts – out of sight and out of mind. We will only have the resolve to change our system if we are forced to confront its consequences head-on.
We would also like to point out that lots of businesses are opening up downtown or have opened up recently. New construction is happening too. So there’s quite a few placing bets on being able to make money here. Not all downtown businesses deserve to survive, if they can’t show flexibility and follow the spending habits of those who live here, and the crowds of people moving in. And certainly they don’t deserve to literally change the demographics of who lives downtown to prop up old business models that worked 5, 10, or 20 years ago.
Ultimately, a crucial ethical question must be asked: Does the profitability of downtown businesses assume precedence over human survival? For individuals living on the streets, access to alcove space can be fundamental to protection from the elements. As temperatures drop and weather worsens it can become a literal question of life or death. Several folks die each year from exposure. If someone you cared about died in such a preventable way would you be motivated to change things? Will we accept, like mass gun violence, that this is the new normal?
“What are business owners supposed to do when they are finding feces and needles outside their business every day?”
Instead of private security, what if we put our money into clean, safe 24/7 public restrooms in multiple places downtown and more downtown cleanup crews? More venues for needle exchange and disposal, and decriminalizing drug usage so that people aren’t forced to quickly dispose of rigs would also help with these issues and lessen the burden on individual business owners to keep their alcoves clean. Some business owners also choose to let individual houseless people who they have developed a personal relationship with sleep in their alcove, people who they know will be good stewards of the space. We strongly encourage getting to know your neighbors, housed and unhoused. There are groups in our community that are willing and able to help facilitate some of this relationship building.
“Why don’t you house them yourselves?”
Not everyone has the option to do that due to being a renter – and the majority of Olympia residents are renters. Some of us (OlySol) have indeed provided housing to homeless individuals in our own homes. Usually this starts from forming personal relationships with folks on the street. For some business owners, a good middle ground has been to get to know some of their unhoused neighbors and to allow those folks who they think will be good stewards of the space to sleep there when the business is closed. If you work or live downtown, it’s important to get to know your neighbors – housed or unhoused. We hope that business owners downtown engage in this way and already have unhoused friends in mind that they may want to help out. And if you don’t have any, we would gently ask: Why? If houseless folks are a significant percentage of the human beings you see every day, we would challenge you to think about what may be getting in the way of developing personal relationships with some of them. If you’re already there, thank you.
But housing is also systemic problem, which requires more than just letting people camp in our backyards or sleep on our couches. Dealing with homelessness is a complex task which involves increasing the supply of affordable housing, public and cooperative housing, providing free/low-cost healthcare, sexual violence/abuse prevention, drug treatment, and many other things that individuals cannot provide on their own. This is why in addition to our personal relationships with members of the houseless community, OlySol members also work with numerous other local organizations that address homelessness using tactics ranging from political advocacy, to overnight shelters, to cooking community meals.
At the heart of this seems to be the thought – “Do what you want with your property, I’ll do what I want with mine.” This argument rings hollow to us because many of those very same private property advocates are also the ones who advocated for the 2008 ordinance in Olympia, which banned private property owners from hosting homeless encampments on their land. The original ordinance only allowed 2 camps total – 1 hosted by the county and 1 by a faith-based organization. Very recently our city council amended the ordinance to allow any number of camps, but private individuals still can’t host them – only the city, churches, and 501c3 nonprofits. If a kind-hearted person in your neighborhood wanted to host a homeless camp on their land, would you support it? Surely they have the same rights over their land as businesses do over their alcoves. Many people opposed to someone allowing another to camp on their property might claim that it doesn’t just affect the property owner but also the people who live nearby – and so they should have a say in whether it happens. To this point, we would like to acknowledge that kicking people out of alcoves seriously also significantly affects those who live nearby- particularly those who are unhoused and live downtown, So, shouldn’t others also have a say in whether that happens? Fair play.
“Why do they have to sleep downtown in the sidewalk/doorways? Why not go to a shelter?”
For hundreds of homeless residents of Olympia and Thurston County, sleeping outside isn’t a choice. Shelter space is woefully inadequate. Last year’s Point-in-Time Count, counted 835 people experiencing homlessness in Thurston County (with the brunt of people either living in Olympia or neighboring cities like Lacey and Tumwater). The general rule of thumb is that, due to the limitations of PIT Counts, they tend to undercount actual numbers anywhere between 40-50%. Keeping this in mind, we know that the actual number of people experiencing homelessness in Thurston County is likely closer to 1600. Meanwhile, there are only about 200 shelter beds available during the warm season and about 250-300 beds in the colder months, depending on the availability of emergency shelter beds.
Furthermore, depending on the demographic people belong to, there are even more limited options for shelter. For instance, There is only one shelter for families with children, one shelter for youth, 1 shelter where couples without children can stay together, 1 shelter that allows for pets, and only 1 adult shelter that is not facilitated by a faith based organization (this is important to note as many people surviving outdoors have had negative and/or traumatic experiences with faith based groups).
There are also many people who are unable to stay in shelters due to the stress, emotional, and mental health triggers that are overwhelmingly present in shelter environments. When one stays in a shelter, they are almost always sharing a small space with a significant number of people. This can look like sharing a single space/large room with anywhere from 20-60 other individuals, depending upon the shelter. Keeping in mind that typically all of the people are dealing with significant life crisis and often medical, mental health, and substance use related challenges- these environments can be incredibly difficult for people to function in healthily. For some people, particularly those who have experienced trauma in their lives, this type of living situation is just not doable.
Some people also choose to avoid shelters is related to the easy spread of sickness, bed bugs, lice, and skin infections- like MERSA. Others, particularly those with work schedules, cannot abide by curfew requirements. For example, most shelters close their doors between 7-9PM, so people who work evening shifts cannot make it to shelters by the time they close.
When it comes down to it, even though surviving outside is far from easy, healthy, safe, or un-traumatic- for some people it is a more suitable alternative to living in a shelter. However, even with this, for most people it isn’t about a choice- it’s about the simple math and the simple fact that we have nowhere close to enough shelter beds to meet the need.
“Why are you threatening these small business owners?”
We feel that the people being threatened are the houseless people who are being driven away from the only safe sleeping locations that they have by private security hired by wealthy business owners. We are not threatening, we are promising that if these violent and selfish actions against houseless individuals do not stop, we will continue to take action.
We would disagree that we are threatening anyone. Certainly, we’ve given no indication that we intend to do anything violent or illegal. We consider their actions unjust. Movements that many of the older generations among us are proud to say they participated in, like those for civil rights and equality for LGBTQ+ people, were not just about having debates on Facebook. They also took action, similar to many of the actions we have taken (picketing, flyering, non-violent direct action). And when they meant to take action, they didn’t send out schedules of marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations, to let people know what would happen if they didn’t change their ways. Characterizing the demands of all protest movements as “threats” is a dangerous escalation of rhetoric that we hope to discourage.
“This campaign is counter-productive. Sleeping in alcoves and on sidewalks isn’t a solution to homelessness in our community.”
We view permitting people to sleep in alcoves and on sidewalks as a necessary but insufficient harm reduction measure. Access to more space, particularly space that is relatively shielded from rain exposure, can help mitigate the most harmful health consequences associated with homeless living conditions. As winter conditions intensify, freeing up more sleeping space becomes ever more urgent and a literal question of life or death for many on the streets.
It’s true that merely securing our demand for increased safe sleep options won’t solve the crisis of homelessness in Olympia. Nor would similar campaigns in other cities solve homelessness in those communities. Homelessness and housing instability (which effects large swaths of American society) are inherent to capitalism. Capitalism treats housing as any other commodity: a product to be bought and sold on the market for a profit, blind to human need. Ending homelessness and the housing crisis entails a multi-pronged approach to removing profit interests from the housing system and eventually guaranteeing housing as a human right to all those who want shelter. This approach can include advocating for affordable and public housing initiatives, community land trusts, rent-stabilization and eviction protection laws and increased shelter, mental health and substance abuse services. It must also include grassroots organizing among tenants, struggling homeowners and homeless people to directly confront the greed of landlords, banks and governments to ensure stable housing conditions (something OlySol has done in the past). OlySol members, inside and outside OlySol, in Olympia and in other cities, have contributed to an array of housing justice movements that seek to halt displacement and eliminate the very roots of homelessness. These include efforts to fight foreclosures, pass ballot initiatives to increase affordable housing options and force landlords to make necessary repairs.
Ending homelessness will always necessarily involve more short-term harm reduction organizing coinciding with more systemic interventions in the housing system. Thus, while this campaign doesn’t ultimately offer a solution to homelessness, it is still a productive and worthwhile undertaking.
“Why not pick up trash and feces yourselves? Why not engage in more constructive work?”
Many OlySol members are involved in a number of community-based initiatives to deal with the public sanitation crisis homelessness often entails. This includes work around garbage collection, needle exchange and the distribution of sanitary supplies. Members have also organized in other organizational capacities for increased public sanitation services, namely 24/7 public bathroom access throughout downtown.
Moreover, OlySol is an official collaborator of the Mutual Aid Mondays project, a food, clothing, medical and hygiene supply provisioning event that occurs every Monday evening at the camps adjacent to the transit center. While much of OlySol’s work is direct action-oriented, we also believe mutual aid must be central to our strategy. Mutual aid is crucial when the state and market fails to meet basic human needs and can be an important way to forge new personal and political relationships.