Finding Community on the Streets
MIKE STONE'S TESTIMONY
From the occasional person or couple at a main intersection, to a consistent rotation of people sleeping on cardboard and blankets in the doors of downtown businesses and on the benches in the city parks, to large encampments in and around the city, both hidden and in plain sight. The homeless population in Olympia, Washington has exploded in recent years.
The people who live on the streets have been stereotyped as lazy drug addicts, or dangerous criminals who steal wallets and cell phones, but the truth is that everyone has a different story. Some people grew up poor and went down the same road their parents did. Some people never got the mental health care they needed, or can't afford the medicine they need to be "normal" and "functioning". For some people, drug use has become part of coping with a precarious economic situation, or the result of abuses they have suffered. And some people simply found themselves out of a job, unable to pay the bills, and therefore on the streets. They say every American is just one unforeseen medical emergency away from bankruptcy and homelessness, and that's the world we live in now.
The city has made attempts to control the encampments, with a mitigation site downtown and temporary tiny-home housing, but at the same time has facilitated the construction of luxury condos and high-end apartment buildings all over downtown. Olympia is growing quickly, becoming another bedroom community for the tech-metropolis that Seattle is becoming, and as always population growth means gentrification. Vulnerable members of our community are finding it more and more difficult to find housing that they can afford, and the housing crisis is becoming more and more visible on the streets. Olympia renters, many of them elders who receive as little as $800 a month on Social Security or disability, are being evicted from their homes so their landlords can build luxury living spaces or remodel to charge two or three times their current rent. Another issue is AirBnB, in which apartments, extra rooms, and even entire houses are being bought up and rented out to travelers, rather than local individuals and families who need housing. All across the United States it is the same. California has one of the largest unhoused populations in the nation, and both Portland and Seattle have entered extreme housing crises in recent years.
Evictions are said to be the number one cause of homelessness, but our systemic prioritization of monetary wealth over other people's well-being is what causes people to be thrown out of their homes and onto the streets. Homelessness is just a symptom of the disease.
Tenant Rights rally outside the Olympia City Hall. Community members called for more protections for renters, such as payment plans for move-in fees, as well as rent control.
In the Fall of 2018, the Olympia street community took over an empty parking lot downtown, and succeeded in holding the space throughout the winter until they were forcibly dispersed in March. When that encampment formed, things changed. Many people from the street community were united, and their struggle became one of the community, rather than an individual one.
I met Mike Stone last December. He approached me with two holiday wreaths, one in each hand, and asked me if I wanted to contribute to a good cause. I asked, well what's the cause? And he said, the homeless are putting themselves to work. And then he said some guy was giving them five bucks for each wreath they make and five for each they sold, but each wreath cost $20 and I was concerned about what was happening to those other ten.
Mike invited me to check out the wreath-making operation they had going, which was in Tent City. That fall, the street community had taken over an empty parking lot across from the bus stop (and under the shadow of one of the new apartment buildings of downtown), which had come to be known as Tent City. So the following day I went downtown to check it out. I had passed the encampment several times and was curious about it– I knew the wealthier people of Olympia (especially the managers of the brand new apartment building) were pushing the city to evict the parking lot, but I had never actually been inside the encampment.
HoHoHobos wreath-making shack in Tent City.
I found Mike Stone almost immediately. He and his partner Brandy had made a big tarp structure on the side of the fence, partially hidden behind the dumpster and basically right at the entrance of the lot. It was spacious inside and allowed them to have a sheltered space and another layer of protection for their tent and belongings. Mike walked me over to the wreath-making shack, and that was when I was introduced to the HoHoHobos project. Every year during the holiday season, they come in to help support Olympia’s street community with a wreath-making operation. People get $5 per wreath they make and $5 per wreath they sell, $5 goes towards supplies, and the other $5 goes into a pot for the community to decide how to use in a way that benefits everyone. In 2017 the pooled money went to collecting, washing, and making useable again blankets that had been left out in the woods at old encampments in Lacey and on the outskirts of town. The project is a way for people to fill their immediate monetary needs (like paying for the bus or buying food), as well as benefit the community as a whole.
Since then, Mike and I have run into each other a lot around town and we have always stopped to chat for a minute. I’ve learned about how involved he is within the street community, always helping other people out, and coming up with great ideas to help support people. He’s the go-to guy for any need that anyone has, and takes great pride and joy in feeling like he can create positive change within the community by supporting others.
The first few tents to take up camp underneath the 4th Ave bridge, just before the City of Olympia forcefully evicted Tent City. Tensions were running high at the time, when people were being moved to the mitigation site. Not everyone wanted to go there. In February, Olympia got two feet of snow and those who were living in the mitigation site and Tent City had their tents caved in, and flooded as the snow melted.
MIKE STONE’S TESTIMONY
I was living up at Lake Cushman, with a couple guys I was working with. They were both welders and had helped me get a job as an assistant. But after a year or so they moved on to another job and I couldn’t pay the rent. I squatted in the Lake Cushman house for as long as I could, but eventually I had to leave there and become homeless, you know, bonafide.
I went to Shelton and found a homeless shelter, a place that was warm and dry and safe to sleep at. There I met this girl named Hillary, she was very crazy. And she needed a friend so I became her friend. Nobody was friends with her, cuz she was crazy. They got tired of hanging out with a crazy person, now can you please turn it off? You can't turn off crazy. You can't shut it down. She had been traumatized from an early age and she had suffered a lot. People close to her abused her. So I would stand with her during any confrontation. The cops knew her by her first name, because she would be really loud at night, screaming things she was remembering: “they kidnapped me!” And people don't like having that kind of attention so they'd take it out on her. She was a klepto, she would see something sparkly and just grab onto it, and people would take it as a direct attack. Anytime she’d say something was hers, she’d believe it… but she’s another story altogether.
One of the encounters we had with the cops in Shelton, it was late at night and I was in a friend’s truck with Hillary, and they told me, could you just drive her out of here? And I didn't have a license, so I was kind of surprised. And they asked me to take Hillary and go. Ok, well, where should I go? And they said, “Olympia”. We would talk to the cops at least three to four times a week, and they were tired of dealing with her. Everywhere we’d go, she was crazy. I learned that it wasn't her fault; she's seen things way more terrorizing than things I could ever imagine.
Hillary actually inspired me to live better, to be like a friend that was really there, even when things got uncomfortable. And I wanted to do that for her. And because of our adventures, I ended up here. And she, since then moved on to Western State, cuz she was getting beat up at the mitigation site because everybody was so close together and she was like a girl playing dress-up in a parking lot, that's all it was. She didn't really understand people's limits or personal boundaries and she would get attacked, by girls. You see, they kept treating Hillary like she was coherent, but it wasn't fair. I would have to pre-explain the situation to a lot of people, and they wouldn't believe me until they met her. I wanted to reintegrate her back into talking to people, that was my goal, and a lot of people were on board with trying to be creative about helping Hillary get through her traumas. But she was always being used by other guys, all they would have to do was show her a little bit of drugs and she would do whatever just to be high, you know, that was her thing. She was promiscuous, to say the least. I had to reinvent myself as a man if I was going to walk with her, where my pride wasn't going to get in the way of things. I didn't want my own insecurities and weaknesses to be our demise, to cost me a lesson.
When I met Brandy she was my go-to person when I was escaping from Hillary. Cuz Hillary was getting violent. And I think she was just acting out from what was happening to her, I couldn't keep an eye on her all the time. Hillary became more like someone I had to look out for. So anyway me and Brandy were friends, before anything, we were friends. And it just happened that way. She's independent, headstrong. I really admire the things that she does.
My time is worth a lot to me, and I’ve realized that I shouldn't squander it with people that aren't going to return what I shared with them into the world, they're just gonna throw it away. Why would I want to do that? Why would I want to put my seeds in infertile soil where they're just going to whither? These are precious seeds that were given to me, as my birthright. I am 49 and I've never created children of my own, so I gotta pass on something to the world. I gotta honor my mother who raised me right, somehow…. She died in my arms in 2015. Diabetes. Me and my dad were holding her, when she passed away. I was lucky enough to get a month to visit before she passed. Hospiss is the way to go, I guess. You die in your own home. I gotta make sure I do right by her. My dad and I don't get along, not anymore. Were just always at odds, me and my dad. I don't think I’d be able to see him. He doesn't understand... me. We were never that close. But he's a good man. So… the street community is my family. I have 200 family members now. And I've been able to make a difference, even just a little bit, which helps me be happy; to know that I can influence people's lives to do good, if I can, when I try.
I have some friends that if I were to have a brand new job at the Outback as a waiter, they would come and say, hey I brought all our other friends and they want to order from you and they want to patronize your success and they want you to succeed, by the proper channels. And then there are other friends who are not so much friends that say to you, I know you got this brand new job and I'm here to shmooze on all the free stuff you can get, even though it’s at the risk of your success. You gotta realize who you want to prosper. When you surround yourself with absolute value, people that will punish you if you're full of shit. That's what I need. Cuz if I was to spar with myself I'd be just, too soft. You know, when you have a sparring partner that's a gift; training to fight with a partner who’s willing to test you as much as you are willing to test them.
The HoHoHobos holiday wreath-making shack in the middle of Tent City.
We were some of the first people in Tent City, and I just watched people collect around us. There were no walls, there were curtains. It was almost like a hive mind was developing. People would speak on the things you were thinking about. Your neighbors, everybody in the parking lot was becoming the same energy, same frequency, and people were synchronizing, as they do. That's what people do when they get together, they synchronize. Especially if you have music or some kind of cadence. People just naturally tend to do that, like magnets. Like magnets do to steel.
Before Tent City there was kind of a distance between homeless people. Kind of a silent war. People had the attitudes of “cops are out to get me”. The cops go after whoever made themselves a target, but when everybody came together it was like: Ok, there's all the homeless. We can move on. We don't have to look at what they're doing, they're right there in a fishbowl. And I think everybody here benefitted in ways that they will not admit, cuz I’ve never seen cops harass anybody at all up here in the encampments, they're actually there to help us. There is no war, the boogeyman is not out to get us. Now the cops can do their jobs easier, cuz we’re easily found. It's good. It seems to me that the cops are understanding of the homeless condition. Talking about the bridge, I've even heard a couple of them say “this is the cleanest I've ever seen it”. We work on things together as a community now, and in some ways there's more order than there ever was before in recent homeless camps. It's a good thing. And my goal is to take that awareness and push it further. We don't have to pretend who we are.
We don't have to buy clothes. All our clothing needs are taken care of. Our housing needs are taken care of. We don't have to cook a lot of the time, we get a great food program around here. There’s all this extra time on your hands to go be a fuckin’ superhero. Why not, you know? Go help people that can't afford to pay you, try that. See what happens. Go find people that qualify for your help, and then do it again. You'll feel happy. You don't have to worry about the basics. Its just weird, you know, not having a need. All you have is wants. You want this, you want that, but you don't need it cuz it's all taken care of. And it'll change your attitude. I'm not saying that everybody should be homeless but, you know, downsizing is a good idea. Get rid of the clutter in your life, those possessions that change your day: oh, you gotta go home because you left something on, or unlocked. You realize that an inanimate object is commanding you to do that. It's not really the case but people believe that to be true. It's just something that was made in China. It just all becomes trash. I don't need none of that shit.
When somebody goes through a lack period, when they just don't have what they want or need or what they think is important to their life, when they come in contact with that item they're gonna hoard it. Sometimes to give it to other people who they think would need it or just so they would never run out of whatever it is. Hoarding is a disease and it’s contagious, so you gotta nip it in the bud. See those trash bags over there? Those are all clothes that I haven't washed in weeks. When we have a need, we just go to the places that give us free clothes and we just build from there or find something in the dumpster that's not too filthy, or repurpose it or, you know, put it to use. You'd be amazed what you find in a dumpster. If you just get through the “oh my god, I'm getting in a dumpster”. You get over that, it's not that bad.
You can do anything if you’re geared up right. If you're gonna go to the moon, make sure your space suit has no holes. That's all you gotta do. We are creative problem solvers, we can do anything we want. Sometimes you gotta work towards that goal more than other goals but, why not? If a genie were to appear in front of me cuz I rubbed a lamp, cuz I was cleaning it or whatever, and the genie popped out and tried to give me three wishes, I would give them back. I'd give them back. I don't want any shortcuts. I don't want to cheat myself out of lessons. I got here because of my choices. Definitive juxtaposition. Like it or not, I am the reason I'm here, right here in this spot. I'm not a victim. I don't need to pay everybody's tuition, I've got my own things to learn.
The dumpster at the entrance of the 4th Avenue bridge encampment.
Being homeless is an experience that I'll never forget. I'm better for it, I believe. When you think about it, people really aren’t alive until they are way out of their comfort zone. Those snapshots that I have, memories of living, are from when I was outside of my normal conditions, when things around me were different. You don’t know what's gonna happen, it's just up to you – that's when you’re alive. You have to reach a little deeper than you normally do, and that's when you really live. Where I'm at is a culmination of my choices, and I should celebrate that. Around here in the encampment there aren't so many shields from reality. Wherever you are– you're here, you're there– just bring yourself with you.
All the wealth that's been accumulated in the hands of the rich people, and less and less of it in the hands of the American people, is a culmination of years and years, maybe hundreds of years of a silent or secret war. To me it's not about society: I want to talk about what you can do, I want to talk about what I can do, I want to talk about what we can do. And that's really all we should talk about. We need awareness: of the issues, and the powers that we have within us to solve them. You gotta get in touch with yourself, the journey is inward. Everybody has their own powers, but religion and society try to convince us that we don't have any power. They share with us information but just enough so that they can maintain power over us, and I don't believe in that. If I’m gonna share information, I’m gonna do it to the best of my ability. If we play chess I’m gonna teach you how to beat me so I can get off my ass and be creative. That's how I wanna live; I want to be a conduit, not a container. There's unlimited potential in a conduit— whatever is flowing through, it can be unlimited. A container is just a single unit, shut up so it can keep what it has. And that will diminish, possibly. At least, that's where we're headed.
When you make a decision, I believe it comes from one of two places, love or fear. And a lot of the decisions we make now days are out of fear: You just bought something that you didn't think you were gonna buy. Why did you buy it? because you feared the loss of that deal. Come on in now and buy this or you'll never have this deal again! – Oh shit I gotta buy that! – Why did you buy that? – Cuz it was a good deal!
I have met so many amazing people in the homeless encampments along the old railroad tracks that surround Capitol Lake. Every time I enter the camp I meet someone new, and every one has a story to tell and incredible insight to give. Multiple people, after asking me who I am and why I’m there and what my project is about, have poured out their life’s story to me, eager to share it with someone who’s interested. Mike Stone has a story to tell, but he certainly is not the only one and his story certainly cannot represent the homeless experience as a whole: everyone has a unique story to tell about how they ended up on the streets. Collecting his testimony has thrown me into a long-term project of documenting the Olympia area homeless community, their stories and their struggles.
Mike Stone is a supporter; he holds many people up and tirelessly helps his neighbors, but he is just one of roughly 200 people who live in the 4th Avenue Bridge encampment alone. Many people are from around this area, but I’ve also met people who’ve come from California, Seattle, and even as far as Michoacán.
I’ve learned more about the programs that Olympia and the State of Washington have in place to support our unhoused community, and how this both helps them and at the same time, keeps them on the streets. It's not that they're unmotivated to work towards being housed, its that the socioeconomic situation of the lower classes in the United States is hopeless, and not at all a desirable situation to be in. Meanwhile, amazing programs that Olympia has in place to provide basic needs for our street community allows them to stay relatively comfortable on the streets. Olympia’s unhoused community has all their basic needs met: food, water, showers and laundromats, free clothing, shelter, and immense support for each other within the community. They no longer have to struggle to pay rent, they no longer have to worry about material economic status, and “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” means working 40+ hours a week just to struggle to pay the bills. The cost of rent has skyrocketed, and many people simply can't afford it. Maybe some people end up homeless for a series of their choices, like Mike was saying, but what keeps them there is the economic situation of the lower and middle classes in the United States today. All of the wealth is in the hands of the few and the rest of America is just struggling to get by.
The closest house to downtown Olympia and their tent neighbors.
WORKING LIST OF OLYMPIA BUSINESSES & ORGANIZATIONS
THAT HELP SUPPORT THE LOCAL UNHOUSED COMMUNITY:
New Moon Cafe
Burial Grounds Cafe
HoHoHobos Holiday Workshop
Olympia Food Bank
Works in Progress
& the many individuals who give their time and resources toward helping to support the street community