Steve Koprowski was homeless this time last year. The 52-year-old was sleeping on a mat every night. On either side was three inches of space between him and the next person. He had been homeless for years, alongside the 200 other men with him in a Seattle shelter. Some passed away before entering stable housing. Others were not able to get Social Security. Many were sick, coughing and sniffling all night.
This year, Koprowski was one of hundreds in buses, vans and cars that rolled into Olympia as the sun began to rise on Feb. 2. People trickled into the Washington Capitol from all corners of the state. With matching red scarves to signify their unity, folks descended on the campus in droves — ready to start a day of chants and stories fueled by a passion for change.
They were all there for the 2016 Housing and Homeless Advocacy Day (HHAD), an event that turns homeless people, low-income housing tenants and other advocates into lobbyists, bending the ears of the state’s lawmakers.
Koprowski had never considered himself an advocate. Beyond the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings he helps facilitate, Koprowski has never told his story to lawmakers or pushed for legislative change for any issue.
Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA) is a statewide coalition that brings organizations working on issues of housing justice together. Every year, advocates mobilize Washington residents with a day of programming that allows an opportunity for people like Koprowski to lobby for the first time.
“Basically, I want to get housing for people who are still out there on the street and are homeless living in the shelters,” Koprowski said. “The system is not broken. We all have different needs and different things we need support and help with.”
The objective of the day is to create space for people to speak with their representatives. Organizers focus the day on key bills that affect safe and affordable housing. WLIHA selected eight items that would help people get housing in Washington.
For example, the Housing Trust Fund is seen as a key investment in the fight for more affordable housing. If the Legislature approves an additional $10 million in the Supplemental Capital Budget, extremely low-income people will have access to more than 2,000 affordable homes.
Not all bills are about housing. Participants of the advocacy day also support funding medical services for immigrants, disabilities assistance programs for seniors and those who are blind or disabled, and more. The Housing and Essential Needs (hen) program, for example, is a program that supports very low-income adults who are temporarily disabled by providing financial assistance in addition to transportation services.
Organizers of the advocacy day grouped participants by legislative district, explained the bills and advised people on how to effectively share their stories with their legislators. Because of the limited amount of time with legislators, organizers encouraged advocates to speak quickly and pack information in a concise pitch. After the training session, people made their way into various chambers in the Capitol for scheduled 30 minute meetings with their representatives.
The Democratic Caucus room was packed for the 43rd District. The district covers a large part of Seattle — from University District to downtown and more. Sen. Jamie Pedersen was joined by fellow Seattle representatives Brady Walkinshaw and House Speaker Frank Chopp. The three, all Democrats, listened to a dozen stories from their district from people calling for their support for hen, a bill to support tenants applying for housing and a bill to eliminate income discrimination for people with Section 8 vouchers that seniors or veterans may experience.
“As we consider both the bills and the budget requests through the process, it is always helpful for us to have the stories of real people and constituents for us to talk about how funding or lack of funding or change of policy might affect them,” Pedersen said. “Some of those stories that we heard today about different people’s life journeys and the challenges they faced and how having that funding and support from the state has helped them to get back on their feet are really inspiring and help us to make the right choices.”
Matthew Anderson has experienced homelessness and he was in transitional housing for a year and a half. During his first hhad, he didn’t say a single word to a legislator.
“I came by myself and didn’t know anybody,” he told a group gathered in a workshop to learn more about advocacy basics. “The second year I came ... I felt a lot more comfortable. Every time I heard someone else’s story, I knew exactly what that felt like.”
This year, in addition to bringing residents from different senior living and Seattle Housing Authority homes, Anderson is one of the 43rd District leads. He said the community networking with various organizations and WLIHA really makes a difference in the day of advocacy.
Similarly, today Koprowski’s life is significantly different. He lives in an apartment in Seattle. He is celebrating his fourth year of sobriety with a stable roof over his head, and now has a caseworker and manager.
“I have a window and I see the sunrise every day,” he shared.
He was nervous to speak to legislators at the beginning of HHAD, but as the day wound down, he expressed his excitement to continue advocating for change so others can benefit from the same programs and opportunities that helped him.
“I’ll be coming here next year,” he said. “If we voice what we’re feeling and these different things going on, it will help everyone in the long run.”