The annual point-in-time census of people experiencing homelessness is a dark event. It plays out between 2 and 6 a.m. on the last Friday of January, a bitterly cold time to find human beings curled up outside on benches, in doorways or some improvised form of shelter. And the number keeps going up.
The count is a requirement for funding through the federal government, but it is also a call to arms, a reminder to those who would otherwise be asleep in their apartments and houses in the wee hours of the morning that the situation is dire and something must be done.
But what? The Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) has some ideas.
SKCCH is on tour throughout King County in January and February giving people concrete things that they can do to push legislators in Olympia to pass meaningful legislation that would improve conditions for homeless people.
“You all are part of our secret weapon approach during this legislative session."
“You all are part of our secret weapon approach during this legislative session,” Alison Eisinger, executive director of SKCCH, told a group of 13 community members who gathered on a Sunday afternoon in the Renton Highlands Library to get schooled on “Advocacy 101.”
The message: “You do not have to be an expert to make a difference.”
Participants shuffled into the bright, open conference room of the Renton Highlands Library at 1:30 p.m. that Sunday and into the gauntlet.
First, they were directed to a table full of materials including advocacy postcards and worksheets for the two-hour session to come.
Did they know what district they live in or who their legislators are? No worries. Nancy Amidei, former lecturer at the University of Washington and author of “So You Want to Make a Difference?,” a primer on advocacy, was there with a League of Women Voters pamphlet in her hand next to a map on the wall that divvied King County into its constituent legislative districts.
After an introduction by Eisinger, Amidei took over, walking her students first through a civics refresher and then into the mechanics of passing a law and how advocates can effectively push their legislators to ensure that the legislation makes it out of the legislature and onto the governor’s desk.
Knowing how to make noise and who to contact is critical.
Knowing how to make noise and who to contact is critical, Amidei said. Lawmakers see roughly 2,500 proposals in a legislative session and pass maybe a tenth of them.
That means that if advocates want a bill passed, they have to make a strong case in order to ensure their issue gets the attention it needs.
Some of that advice was straightforward. Calls and emails still work. The trick is to ensure that lawmakers see a deluge of such communication.
That process can be streamlined by taking steps to remove barriers that might prevent people from taking action, like providing the right phone numbers and a basic script to encourage participation, or coming armed with paper, stamps and envelopes.
Or, you can go guerilla.
On a trip to Washington, D.C., Amidei recalled, she saw another advocate at the far end of a Metro car. Instead of getting closer, the woman began calling out to Amidei on an issue she was pushing at the capitol. Amidei got into the act, asking questions and getting answers from the advocate. Soon, the entire car who was listening had a basic understanding of the issue, whether they wanted to or not.
The two women got off at the same stop, and Amidei asked her about the tactic.
“I do it all the time,” the woman said. “They can’t get off.”
In-person action can be effective too, but you have to be prepared. Legislators have busy schedules, and the short session means that a lot of work must be compressed into a small amount of time. People should have their pitches down cold, and keep them short, personal and to the point.
A worksheet handed out at the table gave a plan for developing an advocacy message, beginning with identifying who you are, with what organization you work and indicating the issue or problem that you want to see addressed.
Then, share a personal story to make the issue real, Amidei said.
Finally, make it easy on them. Be clear what action you want the person to take and offer to answer any other questions that they have.
After Amidei wrapped up her presentation, Eisinger took over to describe legislative priorities for the short session, focusing on protecting funding for homeless services and affordable housing, protecting renters who use housing vouchers or other alternative forms of payment and protecting programs for seniors and people with disabilities.
Sheena Brooke attended the workshop because her girlfriend encouraged her to come with. Brooke will also be attending the homeless day of advocacy on Feb. 1. She was surprised to hear that communicating with lawmakers made a difference, which she found encouraging.
“I thought the emails were not read so much,” Brooke said. “I thought it was like yelling at a wall.”
Steve Zielke and Alexandra Harding attend the same church and came to gather information and report back. Harding, too, was surprised that letter writing and calling lawmakers could move the needle on legislation.
“This gave me hope,” Harding said.
By getting the church involved, they hope to amplify the message, Zielke said.
If you’d like to attend an upcoming session, here’s a list of upcoming Advocacy 101 sessions:
• Saturday, Feb. 3, 10 a.m. – noon at University Congregational UCC, 4515 16th Ave. NE, Seattle
• Tuesday, Feb. 6, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. at Kent Lutheran Church, 336 Second Ave. S., Kent
• Wednesday, Feb. 21, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. at Federal Way Day Center, 33505 13th Pl S, Federal Way.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Wait, there's more. Check out the full Jan. 31 - Feb. 6 issue.