Bread and Roses: A model for downtown

This letter was written to the Olympia City Council by Rob Richards of Bread and Roses, in response to last night's decision to ban all activities and objects, except walking, from the downtown sidewalks.


Last night's council meeting was disappointing to say the least. I simply do not understand the logic of the amendments, and I have spent hours trying, I have lost sleep over this, I have research and soul-searched and really stepped back and approached this from all sides. One of the louder arguments is that this targets a certain population. The answer to that has been that this is about behaviors not people. Let's look at what this ordinance, even if it doesn't target anyone, does to address the behaviors in question. Instead of these behaviors happening against the side of a building, they'll happen six feet over. Aggressive panhandling has always been illegal (though the Olympian doesn't recognize this), drug dealing and assault have always been illegal. People should call the police if these things occur. What do these amendments really do to change people's behaviors?

You all know that I work at Bread & Roses, I'm the coordinator of the Advocacy Center (BRAC) on 4th Ave. When illegal behavior happens on our property, we call the police. If someone is a known drug dealer and isn't utilizing our services to better their situation, we ask them to leave and not come back until they are ready to take steps to change. We do not appreciate anti-social behavior either. We combat that at the advocacy center by building a strong community, that includes our guests and interns from TESC and SPSCC and our staff. As you accept people into a community they begin to take ownership of that community, this is incredibly empowering. One example at BRAC is clean-up. When Mike Holzinger and I took over the advocacy center we decided to radically change the way we relate to our guests (we call the people we serve guests as opposed to clients) by including them in every aspect of the center. What we have now, after just six months is two clean-ups every day, initiated by guests, one before lunch and one before closing. The staff and interns who work very hard advocating for people now have some of the weight off of their shoulders. We frequently receive calls from people who want to volunteer, a lot of them want to serve food (you'd be surprised how many people in the community still think we're a soup kitchen on Cherry St.), we used to send them to Salvation Army to work in the Community Kitchen. Now, we explain what it is that we do and that we'd love for them to come down and spend some time at the center. A vast majority of the time, after being given the tour and seeing BRAC in action, they are stoked to spend more time with us. After just a few weeks, volunteers start getting to know guests and hearing their stories and you can almost visibly see stereotypes being shattered for them, it's in their body language, their spoken language, and in their eyes.

This, in my opinion, is a model of downtown. Or at least a model of the way these downtown issues should be approached. Last week's public hearing was powerful, no doubt about it. There's one thing about it that sticks out for me, sort of an intrusive thought that keeps popping up in my mind. There was one common theme in the words of every person who spoke from the street community. That theme was: we have been a part of this community for a long time, we want to be a part of this community, we want to give back to our community, please don't push us aside. At BRAC, people didn't start cleaning because we asked them to, they started because they wanted to give back to a community that accepted them. It's kind of funny, but it seems that the poorer someone is, the more heart and soul they put into their lives and their relationships with people. Downtown does have issues, there are divides in our community that have created a "battle zone" in the heart of our city. We do not not need more laws to fix these divides. We do not need more police presence. We need a radical approach, a grassroots community building effort. In my experience, if people are given a space in which to learn just a little about someone they either know nothing about or have certain stereotypes about, it can destroy perceptions quickly and completely.

Laura, while I appreciate the friendly amendments that you made last night, I consider them a spoonful of sugar. They do nothing in my mind to address the illogical nature of the overall amendments. I appreciate the sunset clause most of all, because it gives me a tool with which to do away with this ordinance (I'll have to see if Terry will make me a toolbox), and I will spend the next year working to collect data in order to do just that. That does not mean I'm choosing sides, it means that I'm sticking to my principles. I look forward to working with you in a unified manner on the HSRC over this next year, I think changes need to made to the process and that you and I should communicate more than we have.

I want to return to my original query: What do these amendments actually, physically do about the behaviors in question? I wish someone would honestly and logically answer that question for me, because it hasn't been answered.

Politically, to me, this was an unwise decision because when summer comes and not only are the townies (housed and houseless) out and about more, but add to that the transient population (people that every summer stop in Olympia on their way around the country), people are going to hound you again about behaviors downtown. People may not have trouble walking down the sidewalks, but they'll still be walking past the same "anti-social" people. This could go one of two ways, you all could very well be demonized by the general public for failing to do anything about downtown, a complaint I think that lead to Doug's proposed ordinances in the first place. Or, people are going to call for tougher ordinances, as TJ pointed out last night. Unfortunately, I think the latter will happen. I also believe that in order to save face and gain some political capital, this council will push for those tougher laws.

How is it possible for this law to be enforced? The police, last year, were tasked with enforcing the smoking ban. I haven't spoken to a single person ticketed for smoking in a restricted area, housed or houseless. Are we going to instruct our police to emphasize this new law over others? If we do that, how will we ensure that the equal enforcement that we talked about at the General Government meetings in October actually happens? Was equal enforcement merely added to the list so that I would shut up? I hate to think that would be the case, I don't think it is, but at the same time I'm not sure what to think at this point. I haven't heard any real conversation on this issue. I've heard that training will be conducted for the OPD. I've been through and conducted many training sessions, from my time in the Navy to my time at B&R. Training doesn't work without maintenance. How we going to ensure that the training works and the officers are not targeting certain people? Is there any way to ensure they won't? If we can't think of a way, then this ordinance doesn't work, and needs to be repealed.

In conclusion, there are a number of people in this community who simply want the best for our beloved city. We need to focus more on one another, and empower and inspire one another to be a part of the greatness that only together can be achieved.

Thank you for listening,

Rob Richards
Proud (but concerned) Olympian


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Someone has probably mentioned this, so kudos to them. It would be quite simple if anyone standing in front of a business anywhere had permission of the local business owner. "Shop locally - think Globally"

12:10 PM  

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