Marie Bouassi and David Stoesz, the creators of “Pen and Eye,” have been documenting the homelessness crisis in the Seattle region for over a year. Their comic shines a light on the various barriers unhoused people face — whether it’s the lack of shelter or constant sweeps — with a focus on compassion and accessibility.
The two have carefully observed the steady rise in anti-homeless vitriol and policymaking in Burien, a small suburb Southwest of Seattle with a population of about 50,000. For the better part of a year, the city council has been split over how to address visible homelessness in the city. A progressive minority on the council has favored getting as much shelter and services as possible to unhoused residents, but the majority has focused more attention on reducing the visibility of homeless people by repeatedly dispersing their encampments.
In June, King County Executive Dow Constantine offered Burien leaders $1 million and 35 tiny houses to establish an emergency shelter for some of the city’s homeless residents. However, so far the city council has failed to act on the proposal, which is set to expire on Nov. 27. In addition to facilitating at least three sweeps of homeless Burienites, the Burien City Council has also moved to codify a formal camping ban, known as Ordinance 818, which came into effect on Nov. 1. The city also signed a two-month, $49,000 contract with The More We Love, a nonprofit organization that was founded in April by mortgage loan officer Kristine Moreland. PubliCola reported that the group has assisted with sweeps of unhoused Burienites in the past and claims to help people obtain shelter.
For Bouassi, who is a resident of the north Burien neighborhood of Boulevard Park, these last two actions of the city council were the last straw.
“I think KUOW covered the ordinance, and it made me really angry,” Bouassi said. “I texted David right away. And said ‘I have a really big idea.’”
That was where the idea for the “Burien Overnight Solidarity Project” was born. On the evening of Nov. 11, Stoesz, Bouassi and about two dozen other activists gathered in a plaza outside of Burien City Hall to protest the city’s anti-homeless policies. At least seven participants pitched tents and slept through the night.
“It’s in the tradition of civil disobedience and disobeying unjust laws,” Stoesz said. “What we’re doing really doesn’t compare to obviously the trauma of being outside every day, but just expressing that solidarity with our bodies is, I think, an important element.”
At the protest, Bouassi and Stoesz distributed a special Burien edition version of Pen and Eye, which can be found reprinted on in this week’s paper. Volunteers brought in pizza, snacks and water to support the protesters. Two local progressive politicians, outgoing Burien City Council member Cydney Moore and former city council member Krystal Marx, showed up to support the demonstration as well.
Kelsey Vanhee, a community organizer who helped connect Bouassi and Stoesz with the Burien activist scene, said that the protest gave her hope after disappointing election results. In this year’s local elections, which had a nturnout level of about 37%, progressives lost all three races for the Burien city council by double-digit margins — leaving the council with a 5-2 conservative supermajority.
“We’re out here just as a show of solidarity for unhoused neighbors and so that people know that not everyone in Burien supports this horrible law that’s going to make their lives harder,” Vanhee said. “That may be an empty gesture, we’re trying to pair it with some mutual aid efforts and distribute any of the supplies we don't use to the unhoused. But it feels like it’s all we can do at this point and just keep up the advocacy and keep up the attention on the city council.”
Marx said that the way the city council has acted on homelessness has become an embarrassment.
“The last council meeting that we had on Monday, the deputy mayor was actively yelling at people in the audience,” she said. “So it’s a dysfunctional thing where Burien is being laughed at from other cities around the community and that’s really hard to see.”
During the protest, councilmember-elect Linda Akey had a passive aggressive exchange with Marx and Moore from her balcony, which is directly opposite Burien City Hall, congratulating the progressives on their losses. Akey beat Moore in the election on Nov. 7.
According to some of the protesters, the Burien political scene has devolved into two separate cliques of conservatives and progressives. Some of them said that may explain the preferential treatment toward Moreland’s upstart organization.
“I have not had a lot of interaction with Kristine in person. She spoke at a council meeting and yelled at the audience when she was giving public comment,” Marx said. “But I do not appreciate the way that she conducts herself with unhoused folks. Many people that I’ve talked to who are currently sleeping at [Southwest] 120th [Street] and Ambaum [Boulevard Southwest] trying to stay warm tonight, they have talked about how she’s lied to them.”
Marx claimed that Moreland has relocated unhoused folks to a motel in Renton, under the false guise that it was a detox center.
While Burien progressives lost at the ballot box, they haven’t given up trying to find services for homeless residents of their city. Moore and Charles Schaefer, the former volunteer Burien Planning Commission chair who was sacked by the city council in June for doing outreach to unhoused residents, have started a new nonprofit to set up a sanctioned encampment at the Oasis Home Church, which is just east of downtown Burien. The encampment has a high barrier to entry, with background checks and no drugs or alcohol allowed on site.
Despite the quagmire that is Burien city politics at the moment, Stoesz said that he is primarily concerned with just trying to make positive change to help homeless people in Burien and beyond.
“There’s a lot to be angry about,” Stoesz said. “One of our slogans that we use a lot is ‘a better world as possible.’ [We always want to show] some vision — we don’t have to do this. We don’t have to be like this.”
Bouassi echoed these sentiments about the importance of maintaining hope, even if it’s easier to be pessimistic. “I think that’s something we force ourselves to do a little bit at the end,” Bouassi said. “It’d be really easy to end on doom and gloom, but we have to be able to picture something else.”
Read more of the Nov. 15-21, 2023 issue.