This has been, by pretty much anyone’s reckoning, a rough year for homeless activism.
Seattle spent more than $10 million on homeless sweeps in 2017 – but the absence of affordable housing has reduced encampment clearances to a glorified exercise in misery maintenance. The system is bottlenecked where the places indoors should be, meaning the Navigation Team, which makes contact with the 400 or so reported encampments that exist in King County and triages them for clearance, has repeatedly been stymied by a lack of places to send the residents.
Then, there was the abrupt and perhaps illegal repeal of the Employee Head Tax. This backroom maneuver by the Mayor and City Council undermined a year of citizen activism to fund affordable housing. To call this demoralizing does little justice to the damage done.
But we still have plenty of hope.
Here at Real Change, we’ve spent the last few months regaining our political bearings. We’ve talked to friends and allies to ask big questions.
Where is our energy best spent? What is winnable in this environment? What’s maybe not winnable but worth doing anyway? What are the barriers to the change we need?
And, perhaps most importantly, what gives you hope?
In the few dozen times we’ve asked this question, we nearly always get the same reaction.
First comes the bitter laugh. Then, a moment of contemplative silence while the person reflects and digs deep for what sustains them. And then, almost without fail, they say some version of the same thing.
They cite the amazing community of people working to make things right.
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The outpouring of support for the tiny houses movement, with people lining up to build houses of their own on donated and borrowed properties. The long list of homeowners who have said “yes” to Facing Homelessness’ Block Project, which organizes support around hosting a backyard cottage. The power players, like Pearl Jam, stepping up to highlight solutions to homelessness during their Home Show and raising over $12 million to fund worthy projects that point the way forward.
And the extraordinary individuals who have shown us what a difference a single person — supported by an engaged community — can make.
In short, what gives us hope is the love.
Building on that, Real Change will recognize two extraordinary people at our September 18 Breakfast with our annual Change Agent Award: Susan Russell and Karina O’Malley, two bright lights who have shown us how love leads the way.
When Karina O’Malley took up residence in Kirkland, she saw that there was nowhere in her community where families could go for shelter. She embraced the challenge and helped found The Sophia Way.
The eastside responded with overwhelming support, and since 2012 more than 3,000 people have received the low-barrier services they need.
Then, working with her church, she helped create the Lake Washington United Methodist Safe Parking Program. With a budget of just $15,000, they have built the most successful program for car campers in our region.
Karina insists that she hasn’t done anything all that special. “There’s a willingness to help,” she says. “You give folks a way to help and they’ll help. It’s empowering.”
Karina opened her heart to what was possible, and the community followed.
Susan Russell came through seven harrowing years of homelessness to become a shining example of love in action. When she made the decision to stop hiding as a homeless woman and become a Real Change vendor, the door opened to new ways of bringing people into action.
She teamed up with a Fremont artist to create Love Wins Love, a unity flag project that highlights unsheltered homelessness with enough prayer flags to encircle City Hall.
For Susan, it’s always been about the love.
“People who are suffering need love to be able to love again,” she says. It’s that simple.
Our elected representatives, who currently can’t decide whether to give $180 million to an extremely profitable sports franchise or spend it on affordable housing, could learn a lot from these two.
Please join us on September 18 to raise money for our work and to honor the community that makes change possible. You can still reserve a seat.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
Check out the full Sept. 5 - Sept. 11 issue.
Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.