Uncategorized

Class War on the Sidewalks: Gentrification and Public Space in Olympia

Reposted from It’s Going Down

On August 24, 2018, Olympia Parks, Recreation and Arts Director, Paul Simmons made the dramatic and near unilateral decision to shutter the Artesian Commons Park. The park is small, asphalt-covered, devoid of green space and features tables, a basketball hoop and the Artesian Well, a natural spring (which remains open). Most notably, and notoriously, the park is an important hangout for street youth and is most illustrative of the crises of homelessness and poverty afflicting Olympia. The Artesian Commons closure decision was issued on the unusual basis that threats from park users had been directed against city staff. The absurdity of such a basis is abundantly clear in the lack of any obvious parallels; sidewalks aren’t closed when muggings, public intoxication, or street harassment are reported, for example.

               Protesters occupy the closed Artesian Commons

The decision to close the Artesian Park was informed by class and the political pressures of gentrification. In fact, in a follow-up to his original statement, Simmons claimed, with astounding honesty for a bureaucrat, that, “Our parks are supposed to enhance the quality of life for people around them. It’s supposed to make businesses better, it’s supposed to make property values increase. Unfortunately the challenges surrounding this one are doing the opposite.”

A few weeks later on September 22nd, protesters cut locks, tore down the fence and over 100 people subsequently occupied the Commons. Street kids, activists, anarchists, and other community members played basketball, shared a meal from Food Not Bombs, hung banners and streamers and chalked the concrete. In just a few hours this festive and joyful expression of defiance was juxtaposed with riot cops, arrests, pepper balls and concussion grenades. Although obviously outflanked, protesters temporarily re-opened the Commons a second time following initial expulsion and police failed to fully disperse the crowd for hours. Three people were arrested during the protest, a few more would be picked up in its aftermath; others sustained injuries from concussion grenade shrapnel.

Concussion grenade deployed during the Artesian Commons protest.

The Artesian Commons closure and attempts to re-open it with direct action are significant events in a wider historical context of general anti-homeless and criminalizing tendencies in Olympia as well as periodically explosive social conflict over questions of homelessness and public space in the city.

This essay seeks to both analyze homelessness and public space under capitalism generally and in Olympia in particular and provide an historical account of the criminalization of homelessness and struggles for homeless rights. In so doing it is hoped that readers will conclude that conflicts between the homeless and municipal governments and business owners are an often analytically and practically neglected but potent dimension of class struggle found throughout urban capitalism. Moreover, contingent upon that hope is the hope that radicals and leftists will support or join movements in solidarity with the homeless. Despite the fact that homeless individuals compose a fraction of the general population, the class dynamics of homelessness fundamentally characterize the nature of municipal governance and gentrification, and thus have implications for society at large.

Gentrification and the Politics of Public Space

Gentrification is a process of urban and neighborhood change characterized by displacements of established, lower-income residents and (usually) influxes of newer, wealthier residents, with accompanying alterations in racial demographics – people of color are disproportionately displaced by gentrification, often overwhelmingly so -, economic compositions and physical infrastructures. From this definition political conclusions are frequently forged that indict individual consumer habits or entire lifestyle categories, such as that of ‘hipster’ or ‘yuppie.’ While understandable, these assumptions are analytically shallow.

Most fundamentally, gentrification must be understood as a process inherent to capitalism. Under capitalism, the dictates of profit determine all economic decisions, including within the realm of housing. How much housing is built, where it is built, and who it shelters are all decisions made in the interest of profit. Gentrification, at its core, involves fluctuations in levels of capital investments in property markets in given areas, causing some neighborhoods or cities to experience increasing property values and the attendant effects of rising property prices, rents and other basic living expenses, i.e. to “gentrify.” The inverse of increasing investment levels in certain regions occurs simultaneously with disinvestment in other regions, causing areas to experience underdevelopment. This inverted relationship between gentrification and underdevelopment occurs at a range of geographical scales, from that of the metropolitan area to the global level. Property investment flows are mediated and facilitated by states which encourage gentrification in the respective territories they govern as a means to stabilize economies, increase profit rates and secure sources of taxation and revenue. Governments offer tax credits and subsidies to developers and, as discussed below, actively criminalize marginalized residents and certain behaviors while enclosing and policing public space in an effort to make areas more attractive to investors.

“WHILE RARELY OWNED BY PRIVATE ENTERPRISE OR UTILIZED AS SITES OF DIRECT PROFIT REALIZATION, PUBLIC SPACE IS GOVERNED ACCORDING TO THE INTERESTS OF THE STATE, WHICH IN TURN REPRODUCES ITSELF BY PROTECTING THE INTERESTS OF CAPITAL WITHIN PARTICULAR GEOGRAPHIC TERRITORIES.”

‘Public space’ refers to places relatively open and accessible such as parks, public bathrooms, public libraries, sidewalks or squares. Public spaces are usually owned and managed by municipal governments, although some are ‘privately owned public space’ (POPS). While rarely owned by private enterprise or utilized as sites of direct profit realization, public space is governed according to the interests of the state, which in turn reproduces itself by protecting the interests of capital within particular geographic territories. Public space according to the dictates of private business and the state exists to ensure consumption in the formal economy. These interests exist in sharp tension with the reality of public space’s uses, which are varied and contradictory. Along with formal workers and consumers utilizing public space to access their respective workplaces and sources of goods and services, public space is also utilized as living space, locations for subsistence in informal economies and sites of subcultural expression. Homeless people use public spaces, such as benches and parks as dwelling space, skaters, punks and others use squares as sites of recreation and lifestyle experimentation, and street vendors, sex workers and drug traffickers and others in the informal economy use sidewalks as sites to procure an income.

In the context of gentrification, with increased investment and commerce in formerly underdeveloped areas, an ever greater emphasis is afforded to efforts to police certain behaviors and activities and the people who exhibit them in public space. Municipalities increasingly enact and enforce ordinances and regulations that criminalize public camping, loitering, sleeping on benches or in cars, skateboarding, or smoking in public. Moreover, public spaces are increasingly inaccessible or being removed entirely, from the shuttering of public bathrooms to park curfews and removal of benches.

The Particularities of Olympia

Olympia is currently experiencing waves of gentrification and property investment. As property values increase, area rents and home prices skyrocket, and with them general price inflation. While this phenomenon is increasingly geographically widespread throughout the whole city, property investment remains particularly concentrated in the downtown core. Downtown Olympia is distinct from many urban centers with its relatively low quantity of housing. Downtown is also somewhat distinct with its highly visible and concentrated homeless population, estimated to be in the hundreds in the daytime. Although downtown is amidst a luxury development boom, most construction is occurring on previously vacant lots. Thus these developments are not directly displacing lower-income renters through the redevelopment of low-cost housing (though they contribute to displacement indirectly because such large influxes of investment in property markets leads to near universal property value increases in a given region.) Like elsewhere, the city government incentivizes luxury development through tax credit schemes.

Along with luxury developers, business owners, their political front groups and the municipal government are also fundamental agents of gentrification in Olympia. These actors seek to boost commerce in the downtown core through a range of initiatives. There is a push to orient Olympia’s economy towards tourism through various municipal-sponsored projects, such as the bi-annual ArtsWalk events and promotion of cultural activities at Percival Landing Park, while other parks and public spaces are neglected. The business front group, Olympia Downtown Alliance (ODA), hosts “Third Thursday” monthly business booster events, lobbies for pro-business policies and provides technical assistance to member businesses.

The most conflictual component to gentrification in Olympia, however, has been over questions of public space and the intimately related efforts on behalf of the municipal government and business owners to criminalize and displace homeless individuals.  As noted earlier, downtown is home to a visible and concentrated population of hundreds of homeless people. The homeless presence downtown is an obstacle to gentrification in Olympia (and elsewhere) for a number of reasons. Firstly, anti-homeless prejudice runs exceptionally deep, despite the fact that huge swathes of American society currently are or are on the brink of experiencing housing instability. Olympia is no exception to this trend, with many residents reporting to business owners that they refuse to even venture downtown due to homelessness. Secondly, many homeless people seek daytime shelter in warm businesses and nighttime shelter in the alcoves of storefronts. Business owners have a material interest in banning or displacing homeless people from establishments simply on the basis that they don’t consume commodities at the same rate as housed people. Thirdly, municipalities, Olympia or otherwise, also have a material interest in displacing homeless people in an effort redirect funding from social services into more promising revenue-generating investments.

The City of Olympia actively criminalizes homelessness through the enforcement of a number of ordinances and codes. A No Sit/Lie ordinance prohibits loitering, a camping ban forces people out of parks and off sidewalks and a range of parking regulations effectively bars sleeping in vehicles.  The city government vigorously enforces obscure codes against property owners that are seen as too homeless-friendly. Property owners who allow homeless people to sleep on their property are targeted by code-enforcement for allowing sub-standard shelters (lack of sanitation, running water etc.) on their property. Moreover, social services are dismal. The discrepancy between the number of shelter beds available and those in need continues to increase. What services are provided, either via the municipal government or non-profits, are constantly under threat of closure due to financial difficulties or political pressure.

On the Offensive: Current Homeless Solidarity Movements and Battles for Public Space

Just Housing-hosted “camp-in” in front of Olympia City Hall

Olympia has witnessed an impressive historical array of homeless solidarity and public space struggles, now spanning decades. From illicit mutual aid projects such as needle exchanges, to occupations of parks and parking lots that forced the development of affordable housing and limited legal camping options, struggle on the terrain of public space has been perhaps the definitive feature of class conflict and anti-gentrification resistance in Olympia.

Like in other locales, political activity in Olympia vacillates, with periods of heightened struggle often followed by significant lulls. Currently, conflicts over homelessness/public space are assuming explosive dimensions. As noted earlier, the battle for the Artesian Commons has recently caught headlines, but it is merely the tip of the iceberg. It is occurring within a wider context of struggles against anti-homeless municipal ordinances, campaigns against private security contracts, anti-eviction camp defense and new mutual aid projects. To adequately understand the current moment, it is necessary examine more closely its foundational preceding years.

Protesters confront WA State Patrol during the Heritage Park bathroom occupations

Although homeless solidarity is a relatively consistent political issue in Olympia, efforts have been progressively intensifying over the past two years. This in large part is owed to the efforts of Just Housing (JH). JH was formed in the autumn of 2016, with a politically loose but solid base of homeless individuals, disaffected social workers, students and others. Initially, JH organized weekly city council speak-outs, an important popular education endeavor. During the last few days of 2016, JH staged direct actions on three consecutive evenings, boosting the organization’s profile immensely. Protesters occupied the Heritage Park public bathrooms after hours, in an attempt to force their operation on a 24/7 basis. The protests provoked significant police response, leading to arrests, minor scuffles and the use of the dispersal weapon, pepper balls. The bathroom occupations concluded in the partial victory of the installation of 24/7 port-a-potties adjacent to the brick and mortar bathrooms. Soon after, JH launched a series of demonstrations against the downtown location of Olympia Federal Savings after the bank evicted a small encampment on its property. For the following 6 months, JH hosted dozens of camp-ins, sometimes combined with anti-eviction camp defenses, in defiance of Olympia’s public camping ban. During this time JH continued to consistently engage in advocacy and popular education.

                                 Protesters block OlyFed bank entrance

For approximately the last year JH’s strategic orientation has shifted away from direct action and more exclusively to mutual aid and advocacy. Much emphasis has been afforded to encampment support, such as weekly garbage collections and needle exchanges. Numerous meaningful relationships with camp residents have been forged, allowing more homeless people to directly participate in organizing projects. Due to heightened public support and the threat of further direct action, JH has been able, at times, to directly intervene in municipal policy changes. Many alterations to the Tent City Ordinance were permitted upon request from JH, for example. While this more recent advocacy-centric approach from JH has led to tangible improvements for homeless people via policy changes, there is also the clear danger of accommodation that could discourage the very direct action tactics that legitimized JH in the first place.

“STRUGGLE ON THE TERRAIN OF PUBLIC SPACE HAS BEEN PERHAPS THE DEFINITIVE FEATURE OF CLASS CONFLICT AND ANTI-GENTRIFICATION RESISTANCE IN OLYMPIA.”

This short but significant historical dropback lays the foundation for the contradictions and tensions currently flaring. Responses from the City Of Olympia have been inconsistent and internally conflictual. While initially conciliatory, City approaches changed later, as described below. In May, 2018, the Olympia City Council unanimously approved resolutions committing the city to important, though limited reforms, including legal camping options and the implementation of a low-barrier day center. This was followed a couple months later with a unanimous homelessness emergency declaration and a stay on an imminent camp eviction. These relatively progressive council decisions indicated to many that the City was finally on the right track, and attention shifted to the virulently anti-homeless and increasingly combative downtown business class and one of their political front groups, the Olympia Downtown Alliance (ODA).

The Olympia Downtown Alliance engages in “business advocacy” and has been crucial in cohereing the downtown business class’ line on homelessness. The ODA has mobilized for speak-outs at city council meeting and lobbying sessions in an attempt to pressure the city government into halting the development of social services in the downtown core, a strong desire amongst business owners. The most tangible support the ODA has offered business owners was through its Downtown Safety Team initiative. The Downtown Safety Team was a nightly security walking patrol, staffed by Pacific Coast Security and funded through individual contracts from businesses, building owners and property managers participating in the initiative. The nightly patrols trespassed and swept homeless individuals seeking refuge in alcoves and alleyways and was been effective in displacing many in the downtown core. Many of those displaced relocated to the ballooning encampments adaject to Olympia Transit Center.

The Olympia Solidarity Network (OlySol), along with technical assistance and input from CopWatch and other organizations, assumed the initiative in resisting the security patrols. OlySol’s campaign targeted participating businesses, the Olympia Downtown Alliance and Pacific Coast Security itself, with pickets, street theater, poster campaigns, mass copwatch and PCS patrol disruptions, and phone zaps. These were effective in suspending the nightly patrols for 9 days in early October. The resumption of the patrols was accompanied with new security staff, including a regional supervisor. OlySol continued the campaign with more phone zaps and two more disruptions of the nightly patrols. In early December, PCS withdrew from the security scheme, signaling the suspension (and possible end) of the Downtown Safety Team. This victory is an important step forward in efforts to secure safer sleeping options and is testament to the power of collective struggle and direct action.

October 4th Picket at Harlequin Productions (a contract holder with PCS)

More recently, the city government has seemingly committed an about face, taking more repressive and criminalizing measures against the downtown homeless population. Firstly, attempts were made to evict three large downtown encampments. All of these eviction attempts were indefinitely stayed due to the potential legal implications of the Martin V. City of Boise case of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Secondly, the city temporarily intensified enforcement of the No Sit/Lie anti-loitering ordinance leading to a few arrests. Thirdly, this all occurred approximately in tandem with the Artesian Commons closure, noted in detail earlier. Significantly, these decisions were issued by city bureaucrats with minimal or no consultation from elected city council members, generating internal political conflict.

A variety of actions were taken in response. Graffiti proliferated throughout downtown condemning the Artesian Commons closure and banners were draped on the fence erected at the Commons. In early September a small sit-in was staged on the sidewalk in defiance of the No Sit/Lie ordinance. Days following, a larger rally and march to city hall was organized by Just Housing and OlySol, with a subsequent speak-out at the city council meeting and large mutual aid event outside city hall. This demonstration leveled three demands on the City of Olympia: 1.) Re-open the Artesian Commons 2.) Repeal the No Sit/Lie ordinance 3.) Repeal the public camping ban. Finally, on September 22nd, as described in the introduction, the Artesian Commons was temporarily re-opened in a large direct action that was violently repressed by police.

Much of September’s organizing was informed by knowledge of the internal political conflict affecting the city government. It was hoped that protests would exacerbate divisions between city council member and city staff and bureaucrats and compel the council to react favorably through legislation. Unfortunately, this strategy was fruitless; city council made little gestures towards satisfying the demands. The optimism afforded to an advocacy/legislative approach was unfounded and proved ultimately a distraction. A more focused, direct action-informed strategic orientation could have yielded better results.

As autumn progressed the political terrain upon which homeless solidarity movements operate has only grown more complex and unpredictable. The City of Olympia, bounded by the contradiction of maintaining an anti-camping ordinance but also simultaneously subject to the Ninth Circuit Court ruling charging such ordinances unconstitutional, is currently trying to skirt legal scrutiny through the development of “mitigation sites.” Mitigation sites will be relatively controlled and managed camping areas on public property. Many details are lacking as of this writing, with only one site under construction at the parking lot located at Olympia Ave/Franklin St. However, there is widespread concern that the existence of mitigation sites could be used as a basis for displacement from non-sanctioned public property sites, though this too could be in violation of the court ruling.

The current state of effectively decriminalized camping on city property has only contributed to the furious anti-homeless class hatred of the downtown business class.  Some of this fury is now being directed towards the city government. A crew of business owners are contemplating suing the city government for “damages” caused by the City’s response to homelessness, namely over the enforcement of the camping ban. At a recent meeting of these downtown business owners, a homeless advocate slipped into the meeting and apparently was subsequently confronted and physically assaulted by a couple of business owners. While these growing cleavages between the downtown business class and the city government present opportunities for social gains, the increasing vulnerability afforded to both players could also entail adverse consequences, from heightened police repression to vigilante harassment or violence.

On a concluding note, mutual aid efforts have strengthened. The Olympia Community Medics, which was formed through a seasonal popular assembly hosted by Olympia Assembly, organizes routine provisioning of medical and hygiene supplies to homeless individuals and seeks to coordinate a network of first-aid trained downtown workers and residents who can respond to drug overdoses or other emergencies without police interference. A collaborative effort has been forged by OlySol, Olympia Community Medics, Just Housing, Olympia Assembly and Olympia IWW for the recurring Mutual Aid Mondays. Every Monday for the past 2 months, food, clothing, hygiene and medical supplies have been distributed, primarily at the largest downtown encampment on State Ave. and Franklin St., but also at other downtown locations. This increased mutual aid activity complements the much older and very consistent work of Olympia Food Not Bombs, Emma Goldman Youth and Homeless Outreach Project (EGYHOP), and Just Housing’s Rolling Refuse Removal garbage collection initiative.

Moving Forward: Consistency and Organization in Direct Action and Mutual Aid

Direct action tactics have frequently been deployed in in the recent upsurge of Olympia homeless solidarity organizing. However, this deployment has occurred outside of a coherent strategic framework, often lacking consistency, organization and focused escalation. While the dramatic protest to re-open the Commons was an important display of popular discontent and should not be discounted, the informal and inconsistent nature of organizing around the park is likely partly to blame for a lack of follow through. On the other hand, Olympia Solidarity Network, with its organizational commitment to consistent action and strategic escalation, and maintenance of a strong mobilization infrastructure, was effective in suspending the anti-homeless security scheme mentioned earlier. Either way, as it is clear that Olympia politicians and bureaucrats continue to drag their feet on important policy questions and the downtown business class grows more steadfast in its anti-homeless bigotry, a primacy must be placed on direct action moving forward.

Mutual aid too must maintain its centrality to our strategic orientation. Mutual aid projects can meet material needs, expose the inabilities of the market and the state to mitigate inequalities and strengthen personal and political relationships across a range of differences. As social services are gutted, homeless and other marginalized populations are increasingly vulnerable and susceptible to the pressures of displacement. By filling a resource void left by the state, mutual aid projects can become a form of direct resistance to displacement.

Mutual Aid Mondays, EGYHOP, Olympia Food Not Bombs and Rolling Refuse Removal are all highly consistent and decently organized. Increased efforts should be devoted to further politicizing these projects, seeking to transform them into sites of direct political organizing as well as sites of grassroots service provision. This could assume a range of forms, from heightened attempts at information-sharing and literature distribution (Food Not Bombs already does this) to hosting skill shares or small meetings and assemblies at provision locations.

  1. For the Simmons quote: https://www.kiro7.com/news/local/threats-and-violence-force-city-to-close-artesian-commons-park-in-olympia/819970711

  2. Info on Artesian Commons protest: https://itsgoingdown.org/the-struggle-for-the-artesian-well-in-olympia-wa/

https://pugetsoundanarchists.org/olympia-autonomous-crowd-reopens-the-artesian-commons-police-respond-with-force/

  1. For more on the political economy of gentrification the following texts are recommended: Short Circuit: An Anarchist Approach to Gentrification, The New Urban Frontier by Neil Smith and In Defense of Housing by David Madden and Peter Marcuse.

  2. For more on the politics of public space check out: The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space by Don Mitchell.

  3. On the OlySol campaign: https://olyassembly.org/2018/12/05/pacific-coast-security-withdraws-from-anti-homeless-security-scheme/

https://itsgoingdown.org/olympia-campaign-advances-through-direct-action-mutual-aid/

https://itsgoingdown.org/protest-zap-disrupt-olysol-campaign-expands-against-displacement/

6. On the court ruling and park closure:

https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/homeless/court-criminalizing-homeless-for-sleeping-outdoors-is-cruel/

https://itsgoingdown.org/olympia-anger-grows-as-city-comes-down-on-homeless/

7. On mitigation sites: https://www.king5.com/article/news/local/homeless/olympia-tries-new-approach-to-homelessness/281-613147782

8. Learn more about Olympia mutual aid!

https://olyassembly.org/2018/11/27/mutual-aid-mondays/

https://www.facebook.com/olyfnb/

https://www.knkx.org/post/bike-based-anarchist-public-health-project-s-keeping-people-alive-olympias-streets

Uncategorized

Direct Action Gets Satisfaction: Anti-Homeless Security Patrols Suspended

We are glad to announce that Pacific Coast Security (PCS) has indefinitely terminated its participation in the anti-homeless Downtown Safety Team security initiative. This signals the suspension and hopefully the end of the security initiative. The Downtown Safety Team conducted nightly patrols throughout Olympia’s downtown core between the hours of 8PM-12AM, trespassing and sweeping homeless individuals found resting in alcoves and under awnings. The security scheme was funded through individual contracts with business owners, property managers and building owners, and coordinated and facilitated by the business front group, Olympia Downtown Alliance (ODA). Suspending the patrols is a crucial step in the wider movement to secure safer sleeping options for houseless residents in downtown Olympia.

PCS withdrew from the scheme soon after a protest disruption was staged that shut down the security patrol for the night on December 1st. This was the third time the nightly patrols were shut down through direct action. While yielding the most tangible effects, disruption was only one tactic deployed in a true diversity of tactics throughout this multi-month campaign. Demand delivery actions at contract-holding businesses/building owners, postering campaigns, informational leafleting and pamphletting at ODA-sponsored events, pickets and shutdowns of contract-holding businesses/building owners, street theater and phone zaps were all also utilized. This multifaceted strategy permitted community engagement to assume a range of forms and allowed participants to expend their energies and abilities in appropriate fashion.

While we recognize the immense progress made, we also expect that the Olympia Downtown Alliance and the downtown business class generally will maintain their commitment to vacating our houseless neighbors from the downtown core. We will remain vigilant to such efforts.

We would like to thank the numerous friends, supporters and community members who have collaborated in this campaign. This victory is testament to the power of collective struggle and direct action.

If comrades are reading this from other cities and are dealing with similar issues, get in touch! We would love to communicate and collaborate.

For more information on this campaign and on other recent conflicts regarding homelessness and public space in Olympia:

https://itsgoingdown.org/olympia-campaign-advances-through-direct-action-mutual-aid/

https://itsgoingdown.org/protest-zap-disrupt-olysol-campaign-expands-against-displacement/

https://itsgoingdown.org/campaign-to-end-anti-homeless-security-contracts-launched-by-olympia-solidarity-network/

https://itsgoingdown.org/the-struggle-for-the-artesian-well-in-olympia-wa/

 

Uncategorized

Pacific Coast Security Withdraws From Anti-Homeless Security Scheme

We are glad to announce that Pacific Coast Security (PCS) has withdrawn its participation from the anti-homeless Downtown Safety Team security initiative. This is a crucial step in the wider movement to secure safer sleeping options for houseless residents in downtown Olympia. Of course, we expect that the Olympia Downtown Alliance (ODA) will maintain its commitment to vacating our houseless neighbors from the downtown core. We will remain vigilant to such efforts. In the meantime, PCS withdrawal signals the suspension (and hopefully the end) of the Downtown Safety Team – a victory we couldn’t have won without the power of collective struggle and direct action.

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Responses to Frequently Asked Questions about OlySol’s Safe Sleep Campaign

 

 

“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.

Uncategorized

Protest, Zap, Disrupt! Campaign Against Displacement Expands

Olympia Solidarity Network (OlySol) has moved forward with its campaign against anti-homeless security contracts held between downtown Olympia businesses and the private security firm, Pacific Coast Security (PCS). A couple dozen business owners, property managers and building owners contract with Pacific Coast Security in a scheme facilitated by “business advocacy” group, Olympia Downtown Alliance (ODA), called the “Downtown Safety Team.” PCS guards hired for this scheme perform nightly patrols from 8PM to 12AM and trespass and displace people sleeping in the alcoves or other parts of property owned by participating parties.  On September 5th, 30 OlySol members and supporters delivered demand letters to two businesses that contract with PCS, Harlequin Productions and Cooper Realty/Orca Construction, demanding contract cancellation. Letters were also issued to other participating businesses, property managers and building owners, noting that if their contracts aren’t cancelled they too could be subject to a campaign.

When after 14 days neither Harlequin Productions or Cooper Realty/Orca Construction nor any other participating party issued contract cancellation OlySol immediately resumed action. In the last couple weeks OlySol has done the following:

 

September 19th: Harlequin and Cooper Realty/Orca Construction Postering

 

Upon 14 days following the demand deliveries, OlySol organized a poster campaign targeting the two businesses. Posters discouraging consumers from patronizing the enterprises were placed throughout downtown and adjacent to the offices of Cooper Realty/Orca Construction.

 

September 29th: Street Theater and Leafleting at Harlequin’s Annual Gala

 

Harlequin Production’s annual gala is the theatre’s largest fundraising event. This year, the gala was visited by ten OlySol members and supporters. Leaflets were distributed to the gala’s attendees while a number of others staged an improvised and humorous skit portraying PCS guards sweeping people sleeping on the ground. The action was concluded with an anti-PCS song sung collectively by the group, eliciting the slamming of the propped open front door by an apparent gala organizer.

 

October 2nd: Cooper Realty/Orca Construction Phone Zap

 

Thanks to promotion from It’s Going Down and on social media, OlySol held a successful phone zap of Cooper Realty/Orca Construction, flooding the business’ phone lines for the day. Although less flashy, phone zaps are easily executed and can yield tangible effects by disrupting business-as-usual for targets.

 

October 4th: Picket at Harlequin Productions

Over 40 people dressed in a diverse array of costumes and otherwise funky attire staged a festive picket outside of Harlequin Productions. The picket occurred 30 minutes before the opening of a new show at the theatre. Demonstrators distributed pamphlets and leaflets about the security contracts, banged on drums and shouted chants. Some chants included, “Cancel the contract, or we’ll be back!” and “Stop the sweeps, stop the sweeps, PCS off our streets!”

 

October 4th: Mass Copwatch and Disruption of Pacific Coast Security’s Nightly Patrol

 

Immediately following the picket, the demonstration moved to confront PCS guards beginning their nightly patrol shift at 8PM in a comical and playful but highly disruptive direct action. Upon notice of the impending demonstration, PCS guards did an about-face and started to return to the office of the Olympia Downtown Alliance, where PCS guards take breaks and begin and end shifts. Demonstrators than marched around the block where ODA is headquartered before settling on the sidewalks adjacent to the two entrances of the building, occasionally taking notice of the two security guards lurking in the hallway. Around 10PM, with the protest dwindling, officers from Olympia Police Department and Thurston County Sheriff’s Department, including some clad in riot gear advanced toward the protest.  PCS guards were then escorted to police vehicles and driven away. The protest dispersed, satisfied with preventing PCS from performing nightly patrols for nearly 2 hours.

 

More Information:

 

Pacific Coast Security is headquartered in Tacoma, WA and provides services throughout the south Puget Sound region. PCS (like other private security forces) is distinct from but complementary to state-operated police departments. PCS guards have the power to trespass people sleeping or sitting in alcoves and alleyways but must call upon Olympia Police Department (OPD) to perform arrests of trespassed individuals. The recent increase in contracts between downtown businesses and Pacific Coast Security has been encouraged and facilitated by the Olympia Downtown Alliance (ODA). ODA is a self-described “business advocacy” organization whose actions constitute a significant political force for gentrification in the city. While ODA doesn’t directly financially subsidize contracts, the group provides technical assistance and other conveniences that incentivize businesses to contract with PCS. Disturbingly, nightly patrols by PCS guards have been effective in driving many homeless people out of the core of downtown and into encampments on the periphery of downtown, or further into the city’s eastern and western neighborhoods. Out of downtown, homeless residents have a harder time accessing necessary services.

The PCS contracts highlight the current contradictory trends regarding responses to homelessness in Olympia. On the one hand, as Olympia gentrifies there is strong pressure from the city government and business owners to displace and criminalize the hundreds of homeless people who call Olympia home. On the other hand,  persistent direct action and mutual aid organizing from homeless solidarity activists has forced the city government to concede on some issues. Recently, the city council passed resolutions to open limited legal camping sites and allocate funding for a day center and other services. As minimal as these reforms are, they have provoked outrage among Olympia’s local ruling class, hence business owners increasingly utilizing PCS security services. More recently, the city government has taken more repressive and criminalizing measures against the downtown homeless population. Firstly, attempts were made to evict three downtown encampments, all of which were indefinitely stayed due to the potential legal implications of the Martin V. City of Boise case of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Secondly, the city continues to enforce a variety of ordinances to displace people sitting or lying on sidewalks, sleeping in tents and living in vehicles. Tensions flared to new heights when Olympia Parks, Arts and Recreation Director Paul Simmons issued the unilateral decision to shutter the Artesian Commons, a local park and important home and hang-out for street youth in particular. These measures, but especially the park closure, has sparked marches, sit-ins, new mutual aid projects and a large and festive direct action that successfully temporarily re-opened the Artesian Commons, culminating in street confrontations and multiple arrests.

 

For more on recent resistance efforts, we suggest the following articles: https://itsgoingdown.org/olympia-anger-grows-as-city-comes-down-on-homeless/

https://itsgoingdown.org/olympia-wa-autonomous-crowd-reopens-the-artesian-commons-police-respond-with-force/

https://itsgoingdown.org/the-struggle-for-the-artesian-well-in-olympia-wa/

 

As conflicts over homelessness and access to public space heighten, OlySol is well equipped to intervene in the broader homeless solidarity movement in Olympia. With a track record of successfully combating stolen deposits, wage theft and refused repairs, a consistent capacity to mobilize community members, and politicize working-class people in the process, OlySol can help advance a viable, direct action-based strategic approach within the movement.

 

pcs, Uncategorized

Campaign to End Anti-Homeless Security Contracts Launched by Olympia Solidarity Network

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

The Olympia Solidarity Network (OlySol) has initiated a campaign against downtown Olympia businesses that contract with the private security contract firm, Pacific Coast Security (PCS). PCS operates nightly security patrol services to contracting businesses in an effort to displace and criminalize homeless people using alcoves and alleys as living space. Approximately 30 OlySol members and supporters delivered demand letters to the offices of both Harlequin Productions and Orca Construction/Cooper Realty. The demand letters outlined the unethical nature of the criminalization of homelessness that PCS engages in and calls for an immediate cancellation of all PCS contracts. The demand letter specified that if these businesses do not cancel their contracts within 14 days, further action will be taken. Additionally, approximately two dozen other downtown Olympia businesses that are known to contract with PCS, but aren’t currently being directly targeted in a campaign, were also delivered letters. These letters explained that OlySol was targeting two neighboring businesses and that if other businesses in downtown don’t stop contracting with PCS, any one could be the subject of a new direct action campaign.

Pacific Coast Security is headquartered in Tacoma, WA and provides services throughout the south Puget Sound region. PCS (like other private security forces) is distinct from but complementary to state-operated police departments. PCS guards have the power to trespass people sleeping or sitting in alcoves and alleyways but must call upon Olympia Police Department (OPD) to perform arrests of trespassed individuals. The recent increase in contracts between downtown businesses and Pacific Coast Security has been encouraged and facilitated by the Olympia Downtown Alliance (ODA). ODA is a self-described “business advocacy” organization whose actions constitute a significant political force for gentrification in the city. While ODA doesn’t directly financially subsidize contracts, the group provides technical assistance and other conveniences that incentivize businesses to contract with PCS. Disturbingly, nightly patrols by PCS guards have been effective in driving many homeless people out of the core of downtown and into encampments on the periphery of downtown, or further into the city’s eastern and western neighborhoods. Out of downtown, homeless residents have a harder time accessing necessary services.

The PCS contracts highlight the current contradictory trends regarding responses to homelessness in Olympia. On the one hand, as Olympia gentrifies there is strong pressure from the city government and business owners to displace and criminalize the hundreds of homeless people who call Olympia home. On the other hand, persistent direct action and mutual aid organizing from homeless solidarity activists has forced the city government to concede on some issues. Recently, a relatively progressive city council passed resolutions to open limited legal camping sites and allocate funding for a day center and other services. As minimal as these reforms are, they have provoked outrage among Olympia’s local ruling class, hence business owners increasingly utilizing PCS security services. Moreover, the city government is experiencing internal conflict on the question of homelessness. Many city council members are generally supporting more progressive legislation, while the unelected city manager and other city bureaucrats maintain highly reactionary positions and implement repressive and criminalizing measures. This internal political conflict came to a fore recently when Olympia Parks, Arts and Recreation Director Paul Simmons made the unilateral decision to shutter the Artesian Commons, a local park and important home and hang-out for street youth in particular. Read more about the park closure decision and resistance to it here: https://itsgoingdown.org/olympia-anger-grows-as-city-comes…/. Finally, these tensions are exacerbated by increasing homelessness in the region, fueled by skyrocketing housing costs, low wages and an erosion of social services.

As conflicts over homelessness and access to public space heighten, OlySol is well equipped to intervene in the broader homeless solidarity movement in Olympia. With a track record of successfully combating stolen deposits, wage theft and refused repairs, a consistent capacity to mobilize community members, and politicize working-class people in the process, OlySol can help advance a viable, direct action-based strategic approach within the movement.

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The Olympia Solidarity Network (OlySol) is a volunteer network that uses direct action to combat landlord and employer greed and abuse. We collaborate and organize campaigns with tenants and workers who have specific grievances against their former or current landlords and employers, such as stolen wages or denied deposits. By deploying direct action tactics (be it a picket, poster campaign or office occupation) against abusive landlords and bosses, OlySol can help win relatively immediate housing and workplace improvements for tenants and workers.

If you would like to keep updated on the Pacific Coast Security campaign, get involved in OlySol or want to learn more, please contact us!

Website: olyassembly.org/olysol
Facebook: facebook.com/OlySolNet
Email: olysolidarity@gmail.com