Thank you United Churches of Olympia for your support!!
Join us this Friday for a special evening of music and community!
Thank you United Churches of Olympia for your support!!
July 21, 2016
Our shelter screens people in based on the complexity of the challenges that they face. These complexities have been studied among people experiencing chronic homelessness and have been found to put people at higher risk for dying if they are left out on the streets and disconnected from services. Most frequently, these complexities look like a combination of chronic illness, permanent physical disability, and living with mental health and substance use challenges. Many of our guests have been consistently screened out of services because of their drug use. This further marginalizes them and puts them at much higher risk for contracting deadly diseases and overdose.
We come from a perspective that people make decisions within the context of their environment. At the IW EOS we always aim to “zoom out” to find the context for someone’s behavior rather than blaming the individual for their behavior. Every one of our guests has experienced trauma/is currently experiencing systemic trauma that has a dramatic effect on their daily lives. It is our job (and further, we believe, the job of our community) to recognize what trauma does to people and support them appropriately with that knowledge. What we know, is that trauma often leads to substance use and dependency.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 39% (7.9 million people) of people living with substance use disorders are also living with mental health disorders. So often when doing community education about the issues our guests face I hear people talk with deep compassion for people with mental health challenges and have a strong understanding that those challenges are not someone's fault. Yet, conversations around substance use are often met with resistance and reactions that paint people who use drugs as selfish, untrustworthy, dangerous criminals. Here's the thing, though--SO many people from all possible backgrounds use licit and illicit drugs daily. In 2014, 20.2 million people were recorded to have a substance use disorder diagnosis! That doesn't take into consideration the millions of others without a diagnosis that casually use drugs--a nightly glass of wine to reduce stress, legal marijuana, prescription drugs, caffeine, sugar, etc. etc. etc.
Issues are never as simple (right/wrong, good/bad) as society wants us to believe. Part of our mission is to fight against the many iterations of stigma that our guests are up against everyday. They have survived insurmountable odds and I am honored that they choose to allow us into their lives. By providing an open and trusting environment for people that use drugs we have been able to form relationships with our guests that allow us to have real conversations with them about their use and encourage ways for them to stay safer, be proud of who they are and feel worthy of receiving love.
Practically, we have policies that support the drug users at our shelter including an opiate overdose and administration policy. Based on the Good Samaritan Law, this policy allows for us to administer Naloxone, an opiate overdose reversal drug, for people that are in the midst of a deadly overdose. We have successfully reversed two overdoses that would have otherwise resulted in death because our support staff are trained in this life saving intervention. One of the overdoses was a 19 year old that had just returned from a drug treatment program with no skills or education around the risk of overdose, (significantly higher when coming out of an institution such as inpatient treatment or jail) and how to effectively stay alive.
We also publicly support interventions that have been proven to save lives and decrease the negative effects of public drug use such as Safe Consumption Facilities. According to the Washington chapter of VOCAL, "Supervised consumption facilities are controlled health care settings where people can more safely use pre-obtained drugs in a hygienic environment with access to sterile injecting equipment and under the supervision of trained care staff. Safe consumption spaces provide an array of support including health care, counseling, and referrals to health and social services, including drug treatment." Recently, VOCAL brought an exhibit to Olympia to demonstrate what a room like this can look like. A number of our shelter staff swung by to check it out and we were very impressed by the opportunity something like this could provide for the overall safety and well being of our entire community.
I certainly don't have all the answers, but what I do know is that "all life is sacred" as our shelter staff Jiva puts it in the photo. There is no positive change that can be made in the world or in ourselves if we stop breathing. Today, we honor the lives of those lost to stigma, shame, condemnation and fear. Your life matters, we see you and love you.
In our work at the shelter and our community education efforts, we understand that we can't talk about poverty without talking about issues of race, gender, sexuality, ability, access, age, mental health, substance use and class. We refer to these overlaps of complex issues as "intersections of oppression". Most of our shelter guests experience challenging combinations of these issues in their daily lives making it incredibly difficult to navigate the world with little to no resources.
We are a values based organization and aim to make all programmatic, strategic, fundraising and political decisions grounded in our core values. We know that we won't meet our mission if we stray from our values. One way this looks day to day is that we strive to provide adequate compensation to our workers so that we can keep their skills, heart and dedication in our community serving people on the streets. We prioritize hiring people that demographically reflect the population that we serve. This includes people of color, people with lived experience, former guests, and LGBTQ identified individuals. Today, I want to focus on issues surrounding LGBTQ individuals that stay with us and work at the shelter.
Depending on the study, close to 50% of youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ identified. Services working with LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness have improved greatly over the years. We are lucky to have very adept organizations doing this work locally--CYS, PiPE, Stonewall Youth, EGYHOP and others. The adult homeless service network however, is generally pretty far behind the times when it comes to LGBTQ competency in adult programs. This doesn't really add up to me--people don't age out of their identity. So when they age out of youth programs and there are not competent resources for them in adult programs they are underserved and at much higher risk for experiencing mental health and substance use challenges, discrimination and violence because of their identities. We have prioritized addressing this important issue through our shelter program because many of us on staff identify as LGBTQ and also because on any given night at our shelter between 10-20% of our guests are as well.
How this looks in real life is that lesbian couples can stay in the women's dorm, gay men in couples can stay in the men's dorms, all genders and makeup of couples can stay in the couples dorm, and transgendered people can sleep wherever they feel most comfortable. We have a gender neutral restroom and our men's and women's bathrooms are gender inclusive (meaning that all guests that identify with that gender can use the bathroom that matches their identity).
It isn't perfect. Not at all. People still experience discrimination in our shelter, both guests and staff are misgendered (to refer to someone, especially a transgender person, using a word, especially a pronoun or form of address, that does not correctly reflect the gender with which they identify) frequently and experience hateful language and prejudice. People don't always feel comfortable or safe no matter how good our intentions are or how hard we try to make it a safe space. We are stretching the historical view of what adult sheltering looks like and to change a strongly formed mold is never easy. What gives me hope is that many of our LGBTQ guests and staff have stuck around. They keep coming back for the most part--even when it isn't perfect.
By hiring people with lived experience we know that this job can expose all of our vulnerabilities and past trauma. As staff we have all dealt with feeling targeted at times and drained from the layers of oppression that play out in our workplace. Over the past few months we have been working on a plan to better support our staff by providing them benefits in addition to their hourly wages.
June 28th, 2016 was an important day for us at the shelter. It was the first day in our program's history that we introduced paid holidays for our staff. This means time and half for shifts worked on 8 holidays out of each year. As a team we decided upon our list of 8 annual holidays and like everything we do... it was a values based decision.
June 28th, 2016 marked 47 years after the first night of riots at the Stonewall Inn. This event is seen as one of the most definitive moments in the fight for LGBTQ liberation in this country. The Stonewall Inn is a gay bar in Greenwich Village, NYC and at the time was known to serve the most poor and marginalized members of the LGBTQ community including homeless youth. The protests and riots are widely believed to have been kicked off by Marsha P.Johnson, a Black transwoman who performed as a drag queen, and Silvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican transgender woman. Other gay, lesbian, crossdressers, transgendered folks and patrons of the Stonewall Inn took to the streets after a routine, forceful police raid to declare that they were no longer going to stand for the violence and discrimination they had faced for so long.
As a shelter team, we decided that this moment in history is one that we want to publicly declare as an official paid holiday of the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter. Thank you to the beautiful people that stood for justice in the Stonewall riots, pushing forth the efforts for LGBTQ liberation and equality. While we have so far to go, we are proud to work in our little corner of the shelter world to try and make it more livable and safe for LGBTQ people to be met exactly where they are with unconditional respect and positive regard.
Growth is uncomfortable and change never comes without clash. I am honored to work with a team of individuals that actively work to understand the intersections of oppression that our guests face. This helps us be able to discuss issues that are hard, that make us grow and keep us rooted in our slow moving progress towards social justice. We understand it because we each uniquely live it in our own daily lives.
Thank you to the Stonewall protesters, we honor you.
Rest In Peace
Two weeks ago I received a call from the Thurston County Coroners office inquiring about a man that had been found deceased. He said that the only identifying information they could find was our address listed on his ID card and paperwork from our shelter in his belongings. He told me this information in a very matter of fact way--the Coroner was trying to locate family and was following all possible avenues in doing so. My heart sank and my eyes filled with tears. At this point I swallowed the lump and asked if he could tell me who it was...
A few weeks before this call, I showed up to work and there was a kayak near the bike rack. A KAYAK. I never quite know what to expect when I walk down into that parking lot, but I must say--A KAYAK?!?! So upon further investigation we come to find that Brady had purchased the kayak from Big 5 Sports and had dragged the kayak along the sidewalk all the way back to the shelter from Big 5 Sports because the bus driver wouldn't let him take it on the bus with him!
This was the man that Brady was. Determined, adventurous, and not one to back down from pursuing something he believed in. The weeks when he was boating each day we all noticed a shift in his spirit. He was more social, full of life and began pontificating even more so then usual about the beauty of the sea. This excerpt was a recent monologue he dictated to Ell/a one of our support staff as they transcribed it on the computer:
Anonymous Persons (Nostradamus) Thesis 1.23
“To be on the shore of the west coast, longing for the open waters of the great ocean to catch sail of a gentle breeze going towards the islands of warmth. Shangrila (peace, harmony and contentment) of being very stable and wanting to just relax like a warm bathtub of water with one’s aching existence soaking in it, while sipping upon one’s favorite beverage. it sounds like poetry. want to make this poetry a reality. which is easy to grasp after residing within this comfortable harbor that’s kind of a jest (whats a jest? like a joke? correct.) Somber thought while walking from one such side of town to the other side of town. Take a moment and look out to the far end of the harbor, which does lead to open waters and just ponder on the sailing thought.”
It is not very often that people have the opportunity to die doing something they truly love. This is especially true for people experiencing houselessness. In fact, one of the questions on our Vulnerability Assessment that we use to gauge someone's high likelihood of dying on the street is,
"Do you have planned activities, other than just surviving, that make you feel happy and fulfilled?".
I am overwhelmed with gratitude that Brady had the opportunity to find something to do other than surviving each day, that made him feel such a deep sense of belonging and peace on the water.
We held a memorial service for Brady on Tuesday last week, at the "Octagon" as it's known on the streets, near the corner of East Bay Drive and Olympia Ave. Our amazing medical and hospice partners, the Amahoro House volunteers, provided food, warm drinks and a beautiful display of flowers, rocks and ropes to help us celebrate the life of a man described by his peers as full of dignity, a pure heart and a beautiful example of a true friend.
The memorial brought out Shelter Support Staff, community members that knew him from the street, shelter volunteers and most importantly, shelter guests that have spent the past 9 months living with Brady. All but one of his dorm mates attended as did many others from the street community.
We had three dozen long stem roses that we picked as we shared a thought, memory or appreciation of Brady. We took the petals and gathered them in two vessels. Two volunteers, a shelter guest and Chris, Brady's fellow Meritime enthusiast and Support Staff member, ventured out on a dingy and a kayak to spread the petals and all of our love for Brady into the water just as he would have wanted it. The rest of us threw the petals on the shore to be taken out later by the tide.
Local Man of Mystery
We often referred to Brady as a Man of Mystery. We didn't know much about him and he would always say some coded catchphrases that were playful and might not always make linear sense. He never really mentioned family and all we ever knew for sure was that he loved the water. We learned a little bit more about Brady the day of his memorial, though.
A car happened to drive by as we were walking down to the shore and the driver asked me what we were doing. I told her, and I told her Brady's name. Her eyes filled with tears and she said, "My husband was his high school teacher at Capital". She said thank you to us for honoring his life and drove away.
This moment points to a larger narrative in our city. In this Olympian article Brady Grivel, 50 year old local man who attended Capital High School is referred to as a "transient". When will we accept that the people experiencing homelessness in Olympia aren't "home"less at all? Their home is Olympia. They are without a structure of a physical house to live in, but they are from here. Their families are here. Their jobs are here. They went to high school here.
Advocates and social service providers have tried a hundred different ways to explain the misconception that people experiencing houselessness on our streets of our city are flocking here from other cities. Overwhelmingly, through year after year after year of census information, surveying, and individual reporting we have unchanging data to show that between 80-90% of our street community has called Thurston County and specifically in many cases, Olympia, home for a very long time.
The average life expectancy of someone experiencing longterm houselessness is around 47 years old. Brady is the 4th shelter guest that has died since we opened. Two guests, Chris Fabrizio and Lisa Rath died after they had moved on from the shelter, and two (Ariel Stone and Brady Grivel) have been active guests when they died. All had been living in Thurston County for over 10 years.
May Brady, Ariel, Lisa, and Chris's lives solidify in our minds that the people you see on the streets are part of our community as much as anyone else. They deserve our care, respect and love. When we provide this for them, our community as a whole is healthier and better off.
May we have the insight as residents, city leaders, business owners, faith leaders, newspaper editors and community members to look at the many ways our community continues to push our neighbors even further to the margins by the way we describe them.
Rest in Peace, Brady. You will be missed.
Photos by Angela Lee and Meg Martin
I had the great privilege of attending the third national Housing First Partners Conference this past week. I gave a presentation about the shelter program that was well received. I was also able to hear presentations about all kinds of inspiring things happening around the world (Canada, France, Italy!) and here in the United States. What I took away most from the conference is that momentum is building for things to change. There were over 750 people in attendance talking about the concept of Housing First and how to bring it to scale.
On the last day of the conference, Congresswoman
Maxine Waters proposed landmark legislation to put $13.27
billion in relief over the next 5 years towards ending homelessness
in the United States. This would allow for more money to flow
through every level of government towards homeless services.
It would go for creating more housing and for support services in
order to help support people in housing that have more
In this country, we are hearing more and more about income
inequality, minimum wage increases, affordable housing and
have a presidential campaign centering on many of these issues.
We are hearing that cost of housing is skyrocketing in San
Fransisco, Portland and Seattle due in part to the fast introduction of large
tech companies and the lack of a clear plan for addressing affordable housing and homeless
issues before it is too late.
People often wonder why homelessness is so visible and seems to keep getting worse. They expect to hear answers about addiction, domestic violence, mental illness, etc. These issues have been in society for thousands of years and though they are often part of the experience of homelessness, mass homelessness like we currently have in the United States didn't start until the late 1980's. Together with a tax code overhaul and de-institutionalism of the mental health system, Ronald Reagan's Massive cuts to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (three-quarters of the budget from $32 billion in 1981 to $7.5 billion by 1988) created the picture of modern mass homelessness in the United States. Homelessness is an economic issue that centers around income inequality, lack of viable job opportunities and the rising cost of housing.
So why I am telling you this?
Last week a frequent guest of the Warming Center arrived with an eviction notice from the camp that he has been living in. His notice did not have a date of eviction filled out. Some of the people were told they had 10 days to vacate, others were told 24 hours and others were told by the Railroad police that they were to vacate immediately. Where does the city think people will go?
The Salvation Army has recently moved away from providing emergency shelter which means that our 37 shelter beds and the Drexel House 16 men's beds are the only year round shelter beds in the county for single adults. Ours is the only public shelter for single women and the only one that takes walk-ups on a nightly basis. We now have the numbers from the 2016 census showing the there were 197 unsheltered people the night the census was taken--we have 37 beds and they are full every night.
We continue to deal with homelessness as a de-facto illegal status that requires (expensive) enforcement and we continue to expect enforcement to resolve the issue. It is well documented at this point that this method--the criminalization of homelessness--does not work to solve the issues and results in expensive waste of public resources.
Let's work together to bring the real solutions that exist in our community to scale! The solution to homelessness is a permanent house for every person and family living on our streets, in parks and in doorways. We must adequately plan for our future as a growing city surrounded by two larger cities that are both experiencing housing crises and declared states of emergency on homelessness. Our issues will only get worse if we continue to not take action at the city level to create a clear plan for addressing this issue. Join us in making positive change for the betterment of us all!!
A Project in the works...
For the past few months we have been working with many amazing community partners on a program that will be a positive step in the right direction in serving the most vulnerable citizens of our community. I wanted to do a quick, overdue post about the initiative because we are really excited to be a strong partner in this effort. You can read more about it here in an Olympian article that ran in October of last year. Also, check out the video below (click the button!) that was used at the St. Peter Foundation Christmas Forest Gala to learn more about the project. Thank you first and foremost to our former guest, Noblelee for sharing her story for this cause--she is incredibly strong and I feel honored to know her. Thank you to our community partners and here's to progress in the path towards more efficient and effective services in our city!!
"When the center opens, social services agencies will be located together to work as an integrated resource. Center staff will coordinate individuals’ care among multiple partner agencies. An advanced registered nurse practitioner will provide direct psychiatric health care, improving access to psychiatric medication when needed, and a case manager will support individuals in the short term while connecting them to long-term solutions."
Welcoming ALL People!
Join us tomorrow February 13, 2016 from 1-4pm for our monthly volunteer training! Learn more about how to get involved and about the work we do everyday. Part of our mission is to provide community education about the challenges that face vulnerable adults experiencing homelessness in our city. If you have ever wondered about volunteering this is a great way to learn more to see if it is something you would like to pursue.
We would love to have you! Meet at the shelter in the basement of First Christian Church. 701 Franklin St. SE downtown. Our door is in the parking lot under the building on the right hand side.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org with and questions. Looking forward to seeing YOU there!!
It is with the heaviest of hearts that I write today in memory of Ariel Stone. Ariel, our youngest guest, would be turning 25 on February 7th. She passed away yesterday afternoon at St. Peter Hospital surrounded by love. People from throughout Ariel's life came together this weekend to meet and connect because of their deep love for this beautiful woman... and she would have been so thrilled about it. I kept picturing her in the hospital room fluttering around asking if she could "do anything for anyone" and introducing all the people she loved to each other.
At our First Annual Up In Smoke BBQ celebration last August we presented our staff with an award for their "Fiery spirit, big love and laughter". When I was looking back at the video today watching Ariel, in her element--acting, singing karaoke, dancing, laughing with her friends, I thought that quote represented her so well. When she found out that we were going to record the event she was so happy because she could use the recording for her audition tape when she moved to LA to become an actor. She often talked about her dream to go to LA, break into the entertainment scene and get a red corvette to spin around town in.
At the shelter our goal is to meet people where they are, in all their complexities and messiness and show them unconditional respect. Ariel connected with us and many of our volunteers--particularly the Amahoro House team--and although it was never said in plain terms I really believe she felt at home as an important part of our wild shelter family. Although her fiery spirit was often a challenge to reign in--it was the spark that made her undeniably lovable. Ariel experienced monumental loss and trauma in her short life and was such a clear, daily reminder of why we are doing the work we do. She kept coming back to us and for that I am so grateful. We saw so much stability, growth and comfort in her over the past year. We are so lucky to have had the opportunity to love her, see her and support her both in life and in death.
A celebration of Ariel's life will take place this Friday, February 5th at 6:30pm. The service will be held at her church--Windworks Church--located at 1835 Cooper Point Rd. NW. We will be meeting at the shelter at 5:30pm on Friday evening to drive together for any volunteers or community members that want to come to the service with us. Please get in touch with any questions or to share stories of your time with Ariel for me to share at the service if you are unable to attend. Send memories and stories to email@example.com.
Ariel--you are loved and you are not alone.
What an amazing experience.
Meg Martin, MSW, MHP, is the Shelter Program Director for The Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter.