What Happened after Occupy Olympia? Part II
By Marissa Luck
Heritage Park feels like any other manicured suburban park on a sunny afternoon. Joggers pass in neon vests, mothers push oversized strollers, and dogs trot alongside owners snapping photos on their smartphones. Other than a few depressions in the grass, there’s little sign that just nine months ago the park was a local iteration of one of the biggest social movements of the past decade, Occupy Wallstreet.
Occupy Olympia was characterized as “haven for the homeless” by The Olympian. But when the camp disappeared so to did the “haven.” At its zenith, the camp housed 60-65 self-identified homeless people, according to an Interfaith Works survey from December 2011. With 100-150 tents at the Occupy encampment, the homeless made up a substantial subgroup.
Now, homeless Occupiers are seldom seen in Occupy general assemblies or committee meetings. Why did homeless Occupiers join the movement and what hinders their continued participation?
“Haven for the homeless”?
Many homeless people were drawn to Occupy Olympia for the same reasons others were: to express their discontent with the current political-economic system.
“For me, it was more about having a voice,” said homeless Occupier Jesus “Oz” Romero, as he leaned forward against our cafe table, his blue zip-up jacket crinkling. “I felt like somebody would actual hear me for once. I talk and people would actually stop and listen to what I was saying, and I was like, ‘This is great, I got people who are gonna listen to me now, maybe we can get something done.’”
As much as it was space for political expression, there were practical reasons for homeless people to be at the camp. Anna Schlecht, Housing Program Manger for the City of Olympia, observed that Occupy Olympia was “clearly a resource” for the homeless. And the camp wasn’t just a place to get dry socks and a hot meal; it also had something few places can offer to the homeless: a sense of community and feeling of safety.
“The value of the camp at Occupy Olympia, the value of Camp Quixote, is they offer a place where people can be part of a community,” argued Schlecht. “When some people look at homelessness, they think the solution is shelters or housing, or service. When other people look at homelessness what they see is people who have severed ties with community and they need to strengthen those ties.”
There’s also widespread agreement amongst homeless people and their advocates that in Olympia, there are few places for homeless people to go during the day. Many shelters operate on a night-only basis and the controversial “Pedestrian Interference Ordinance” law prohibits people from lying and sitting on the sidewalk against buildings.
Eugene Brook is a middle-aged homeless man with a blue baseball cap and thick-rimmed glasses. Glancing over his shoulder at a passing cop car he admitted he was an addict and had previous run-ins with the law. His eyes widened when he talked about staying at Occupy Olympia. “It’s one of the few times in my life when I haven’t been [worried] by the police, where I could actually make some kind of point about something.”
Without that feeling of security and community that Occupy Olympia provided, how have homeless people fared?
Homeless struggle to remain active in Occupy
While most activists returned to heated homes after the eviction, Occupiers without homes were largely unaccounted for, retreating to their routines of daily survival. (An investigation of why so few homeless Occupiers went to shelters, in Part 1 of this article, can be found at www.olympiapowerandlight.com.) As Occupy Olympia itself became smaller and more diffuse, fewer homeless people participated in the movement.
Of the ten homeless Occupiers I interviewed, those who were no longer actively involved in Occupy said that they would be willing to participate in “direct action” protests and would support having another camp. As of now though, many are just focusing on finding their next place to sleep.
Timothy Page, a homeless Occupier still active in the movement when we spoke in the spring, explained that many homeless people can’t be involved because “they’re so stressed out and lost” struggling with addictions and mental illnesses.
And as many homeless people have moved on from Occupy Olympia, many members of Occupy Olympia have moved on from issues of homelessness. “Occupy Olympia was not about homelessness. Occupy Olympia was in solidarity with Occupy Wallstreet,” activist Alex Daye told me as we sat in a windy Tenino park. “What happened and what people found all across the country… was that homeless people finally had a place to be, they weren’t being chased off by police, they were part of a community and they were being protected.”
But as the camp became a haven for the homeless, a certain tension emerged. Dana Walker, a local activist who bounced between living in his truck and the camp explained, “We were there to try to deal with the root of the problem that causes homelessness and we got stuck with the symptom of homelessness rather then the disease itself that causes [it].”
Occupiers organizing around homelessness
With the camp gone, Occupy Olympia refocused on campaigns fighting corporate power, economic injustice, budget cuts, and more. Still, a small group of Occupy Olympia activists held homelessness as a primary issue. They formed the Shelter Committee to try to develop a plan for creating a new homeless shelter or community center downtown. The Shelter Committee included a “broad coalition” of representatives from Occupy combined with members of various community organizations.
In early May, the Shelter Committee collaborated with Media Island to submit a proposal to the city for access to a federal block grant and use of the vacant Smith Building. Their project, dubbed the Olympia Resource Center, would act as a community and resource hub for homeless people, offering hot showers and laundry services. However, their proposal didn’t win the support of the city council, which voted instead to award the grant to the Family Support Center. Under the Family Support Center’s plan, the building will be used for transitional housing and emergency shelter.
Rick Fellows, Co-Director of Media Island explained, “We were immediately ruled out because the city did not think we were geared up administratively.” Fellows rejected that characterization by pointing out that Media Island has been a 501 c(3) organization since 1991 and in that time has fiscally sponsored over 85 projects, many of which later become 501 c(3) organizations of their own.
Despite the setback of not winning the grant, Monte Katzenberger, a key Occupy organizer involved in the project, pointed out that the process of building the proposal helped member of the Shelter Committee “make allies and develop relationships” with local social service agencies. He remained hopeful that the Shelter Committee would continuing pursing the Olympia Resource Center project, although the project hasn’t gone any further since.
In early June, Occupiers continued drawing awareness to homelessness by constructing a temporary Med Shed in the parking lot of a vacant state building downtown. The Med Shed offered basic first aid services, a 24-hour port-a-potty, and mobile kitchen bus, all aimed at filling the dearth of affordable medical services and 24-hour restrooms in Olympia. The experiment was short-lived though, as the state moved in quickly to evict the group which was unauthorized to camp on the capitol campus. (Again, an article on this topic can be found at www.olympiapowerandlight.com).
Since then, Katzenberger says the Shelter Committee has fizzled out. Activist Rod Tharp observed that Occupy Olympia “has pretty much died out,” but said its members are still organizing around issues related to Occupy through efforts like The Really Really Free Market and the Thurston County Public Power Initiative. Tharp is also a key organizer of Homes Not Banks, a group birthed out of Occupy Olympia focused on fighting foreclosures in Thurston County.
Of course, even as Occupy Olympia and OWS fade from the minds of many, the issues the movement rose persist. On my way to work one morning, my eyes locked with a man holding a cardboard sign etched with the words, “Don’t drug, don’t steal, just need a meal.” He glanced at me from under the rim of a red baseball cap, nodded and smiled. A dog panted heavily in the summer heat beside him and a twinge of guilt crept over me as I sped off in my air-conditioned vehicle. Should I have stopped to give a dollar or at least exchange a kind word?, I wondered. And then, I remembered, he’d be there tomorrow. ◙