Story of a True Broad-Based Organizing Win: How health students ran a great campaign, then joined two issues together with labor leaders to create a win on both
The Health Equity Circle at the University of Washington (UW) and the Sound Alliance are celebrating a major win: On March 30, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed an ordinance supporting the creation of three new tent cities, providing much needed safe, temporary shelters for those experiencing homelessness. A similar ordinance failed a few years ago.
In the final hour of this campaign, the health students joined across the broad-base with labor leaders in other Sound Alliance institutions to score a win on two issues - homelessness and fair trade - that are ultimately related.
Celeste Goulding, Sound Alliance Practicum Student and Health Equity Circle Leader tells the story of the landslide win here:
A few years ago a group of students from the Health Equity Circle reached out to one of the few homeless camps, or "tent cities”, in King County, hosted by churches, to ask if they could assist with health care needs. From the conversations that ensued it became increasingly clear that healthcare was not the primary need. The primary need was stable locations that will host tent cities.
Tent Cities are portable, self-managed democratic communities of up to 100 homeless men and women. They fill in as temporary shelters that are safer than sleeping in the streets. There is insufficient public housing in Seattle, with waitlists of 2 – 15 years. At the same time a recent homeless count showed an increase of 21% of people sleeping in the streets over last year. As a result, homeless people often do not have many options of where to go.
Lisa Sawyer, 28 said, “I’ve been in tent cities and I’ve been on the street and I know the difference. I’ve been shot at and I’ve had my stuff stolen. Encampments are just safer.”
There was a clear ask from tent city residents to come and camp on UW campus. Students did some research and found there had been previous attempts to bring an encampment to campus that had been halted by various administrators despite broad-based student support. This struck students as outrageous.
In 2014 the campaign officially shifted from being about providing basic health needs to bringing an encampment to UW. This campaign became known as the Tent City Coalition and is being led by recent graduate Hana Alicic.
In January 2015, Mayor Murray proposed an ordinance authorizing three more encampments in Seattle. Students wanted:
The ordinance to pass, in order to set a precedent of supporting encampments as a necessary step in the housing continuum.
An amendment to allow encampments on public lands, such as the University.
An amendment to lift the restrictions on encampments in residential areas, presently or in the future.
The campaign then followed this timeline:
February 19 - Students conduct a successful 100 person action in support of the ordinance, winning the support of City Councilmember Jean Godden.
March 3 - Students attend City’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee meeting, where the amendments were being discussed. They speak passionately regarding the need to recognize all of those living within the city as residents and the student desire to host a camp on campus. Ordinance is amended to include encampments on public lands, allowing the University of Washington to potentially host an encampment. Residential lands still excluded.
Early March - Students organize meetings with city councilmembers, e-mail campaigns, and call-in parties to pressure City Council to accept Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s amendment to allow residentially zoned areas to be studied for the possibility of future encampments.
Hard to pin down at first, the vote on the entire ordinance and amendments was finally scheduled for March 30, and students went about quickly mobilizing turnout.
At the same time, we found out that not only was the encampment ordinance being voted on the 30th, but so was a resolution opposing fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Other Sound Alliance institutions, such as the SPEEA and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, were mobilizing quickly around the need for this trade agreement to be defeated in order to protect economic justice here and abroad.
Quick conversations occurred drawing connections between the losses of jobs that would inevitably occur with the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the already rising numbers of homeless.
The day of the council meeting the hallway in front of the chamber was full by 1:30, council being scheduled to begin at 2. Throughout the crowd you saw green Sierra Club shirts, union emblems, red and yellow NO TPP pins and signs, combined with bright yellow and green Real Change shirts saying ‘camps save lives’ and ‘no redlining’.
Packed Council Chambers (Image via Huffington Post)
The energy was electric. The line for testimony formed at least 40 people stronger than the number of spots. Council started late because of the size of the crowd trying to get into the chamber, and it was standing room only with people watching from the hallway.
Almost immediately it was proposed and approved to extend time for testimony.
Those testifying spoke passionately both against the TPP and for the encampment ordinance, with zoning restrictions lifted. The amount of people that spoke for both issues in their 2 minute time slot spoke strongly to the efforts of organizers to work together and raise awareness of the interconnectedness of issues.
As the council members went to begin voting the crowd sweated, from the heat in the room and the anxiety of what could happen next. First up was the Resolution against the TPP. It passed unanimously and the crowd went wild.
Next up, the encampment ordinance. Councilmember Sawant proposed the amendment to allow residential zones to be researched for encampment suitability. A call to vote, and the amendment passed! The groundwork can officially be laid to allow encampments into whatever area of Seattle best suits the needs of those utilizing the camp, and other Seattle residents.
Finally, the vote on the entire ordinance was called, and it passed unanimously!! A landslide win for homeless rights advocates who sat in the same room just a few years ago and watched a similar ordinance be defeated 5 to 4.
Health Equity Circle students are overjoyed at the win. Energized, they are looking forward to more campaigns on campus and in partnership with the Sound Alliance.