People’s Assembly – Community Organizers Speak Out

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The People’s Assembly on February 27, 2016, was an exciting, inspiring event that reinvigorated the fight to end homelessness here in Seattle. More than 400 people packed into City Hall to hear our panel discussion on how we can end homelessness, and engage in organizing workshops on an impressive variety of issues, and to point the way forward for how our movement can win positive change in 2016 and beyond.

Watch the whole assembly here, learn more about the workshops, and the speeches found below on homelessness and housing.

Kshama Sawant / Seattle City Councilmember

Corporate politicians are making the argument that interim solutions, like encampments and shelters, don’t work, and we shouldn’t put any money in it. Let it be noted that it is the same politicians who are also the obstacle to making permanent housing affordable for all. Our movement should refuse to buy into these disingenuous arguments. We are fighting to expand shelter space so that not a single human needs to live even a single night out on the streets. But we don’t claim that temporary housing is the end of the answer. In fact, we are the ones – our movement has been on the forefront of demanding rent control, to demanding that big developers pay for affordable housing, to have the city’s bonding capacity to build thousands of city-owned affordable housing every year.

Adam Ziemkowski / Legislative Assistant with Councilmember Sawant

How did we win the fight for a $15/hour minimum wage? How did we win sanctioned encampments? How did we win funding for services for sanctioned encampments? These were all historic victories. We won them by getting organized, by formulating concrete demands, and by fighting to win those concrete demands. We won them by recognizing that corporations and the corporate politicians are not on our side. And that we can push back against the establishment if we are strong and if we build solidarity among ourselves. That is what we are going to need to do to end homelessness.

Camp Dearborn Residents

We’re not just homeless. We’re activists. We’re fighters. We’re survivors. We are here to speak for Camp Dearborn, and to the needs of all of our friends and neighbors who are living without a safe, reliable home tonight. The trauma, exhaustion, and fear that come with being homeless is hard to convey. It’s a struggle that no person should be forced to experience. People need safe, reliable shelter. We live in a rich nation. What does it say about our society that people are left on the street alone, to die?

Natalie Kelly / Unite Here! Local 8, Hospitable Seattle Workers

The majority of hospitality workers in the city do not belong to a union. And it’s in the stories of these workers that you can see how easily housing insecurity can turn into homelessness if there’s one parking ticket, one serious illness, one set back…

Sara Mae / 701 Coffee, 23rd Ave Small-Business Owner

It’s been very difficult for us small businesses. Many of us are on the brink of bankruptcy and homelessness… There is no reason that we, as a community, can’t offer every single person the dignity of a home.

Jarvis Capucion / Board of Directors, SHARE/WHEEL

It falls on our community to ensure sufficient shelter capacity to meet the growing need [for housing] in our region. Part of that is supporting existing shelters and interim survival mechanisms, like tent cities and encampments. Still, to this day, though it’s part of the strategic plan, funding for shelters is always the last priority for our human service department and the powers that be. We support Councilmember Sawant’s call for an additional $10 million for shelter services and other homeless services. We need to really invest. If we’re calling this a state of emergency, we need to really invest, in first securing people’s safety and survival.

Violet Lavatai / Membership & Development Coordinator, Tenants Union of Washington State

The Mayor keeps talking about, ‘well, we’re just going to sweep out The Jungle’ – wait a minute! These are human beings! These are people! These are our brothers and sisters, our neighbors that live here. How do we end homelessness? We stop talking about it. We start getting the $10 million, allocate that money, and start building places for the homeless… My call to you, Brothers and Sisters, my call to you, City of Seattle: Action Now.

Danni Askini / Executive Director, Gender Justice League

As of last year, we have the highest rates per capita of anti-LGBT hate crimes in the country of any city. It’s something that we should be incredibly ashamed of. What we heard at [the 2015 Public Forum on LGBTQ Hate Crimes] that over 300 people attended, especially from young people, is the connection between hate crimes and homelessness. A lot of people don’t know that about 40% of the youth who are unhoused or are sleeping outside or in shelters are LGBTQ youth. Many of them have been forced out of their schools, forced out of their families, or have fled to Seattle thinking that we are a progressive haven for LGBT people… Young people come here thinking they’ll be supported, only to face a horrible housing crisis…

Sheley Secrest / Vice President, Seattle King County NAACP

Family, the NAACP, we are here, we understand the urgency of now when it comes to this crisis of homelessness. We understand that Seattle has a problem. That a woman who looks like me can go to a landlord, being able to pay the rent, and tell that landlord that I need a place to lay my head, and that because of the color of my skin, out of the 46 tests that were done, 67% had said, ‘No.’ Just by the color of your skin, there’s no place for you here.

Julia Sterkovsky / Executive Director, Seattle Human Services Coalition

Homelessness as we know it today – as we see it on our streets, as we live it, was created by public policy. The corollary to that is that we can fix it with public policy… Until we have housing for everyone, we can’t simply invest all of our funds in ‘housing first’… When people say, ‘change all the resources, just put it towards housing,’ the effect is the same. Anyone remember Marie Antoinette? ‘Let them eat cake!’ Saying ‘let’s just put them in housing’ is the same as ‘let them eat cake!’ without the [available] housing. So we need to work on two fronts.

Tim Harris / Founding Director, Real Change

If there is a genius in organizing poor people it is in figuring out what it is possible for them to do, and then helping them to do that. It’s not rocket science. So what does that look like? It looks like things like Real Change… It looks like tent encampments. It looks like poor people’s survival activity. That is political activity. That is poor people taking action for themselves in the face of overwhelming system failure. And we have to recognize it as that.

Lisa Daugaard / Deputy Director, Public Defender Association

Our job is to connect the struggle to end homelessness with other struggles… Among the foremost critics of this practice [sweeping the homeless] are the men and women of the Seattle Police Department who know that it doesn’t make any sense, who know that they have no answer to the question that they’re asked by people in their tents, “Where do you want me to go?” They know there’s no good answer to that question.

Katie Wilson / General Secretary, Transit Riders Union

Thirty five thousand people in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties could lose their food stamps [this year] – and most of them probably will. Nearly half of those people are homeless. So if you’re homeless, and you lose your food stamps benefits, what does that mean? It means that whatever income you have, suddenly you’re spending it on food. So you can’t use it for other basic expenses like bus fare or train fare. It also means that you start spending more of your day trailing to food banks and other places so you can get a free meal. That means you have to ride public transit. And if you can’t afford bus fare or train fare, maybe you ride without paying. Then you risk getting slapped with a $124 fine for fare evasion. And, more than that, you risk dangerous and even deadly confrontations with fare police.

Jon Grant / Outreach Director, Raise Up Washington

Some of you might remember a little scuffle that the Tenants Union had with a developer named Triad. Now, that development is actually right outside your window. It’s that hole in the ground out there. When we talk about the demands we are asking – we are asking for $10 million to address the homelessness crisis that we have – a lot of people say that we need to get the federal government involved, to do something. That’s true, but there’s a lot that we can do right here in Seattle. When the city sold that plot of land to Triad that was in 2007, at the height of the Great Recession. The value of that land was $11 million. As you can imagine, the value of that land has jumped since then. The permit for that land expired. Do you know how much money the city lost out by letting that permit expire? $17 million. So when we ask for $10 million to address the crisis about homelessness, let’s put that into context to how many handouts and how many giveaways that we are giving to the developers in this city.

Kshama Sawant / Seattle City Councilmember

As Julia said, if homelessness is the result of policy making, then we have to reverse that policy making. That is why, while we don’t think that the $10 million will be enough – I agree with Danni, it really seems like a drop in the bucket; especially, as Jon Grant said, if you think about all of the sweatheart deals that big developers are getting, which is many, many times those $10 million – we have to win something concrete, and I can guarantee you that, at this moment, we don’t have agreement from the vast majority of the councilmembers. So it is our job, collectively, to continue putting pressure on them. They’re getting phone calls from big developers, and they find themselves divided – because they’ve taken money from big corporations. I haven’t, so I’m not divided. But at the same time, I can’t make it happen alone. That is why it’s so critical that we can’t let today’s energy be dissipated… We need to keep that flame alive.