On Saturday April 5th, 2014 our community lost a beautiful person. I first met Billy when I was in college in Missoula, MT at the Poverello House soup kitchen nearly 10 years ago. I was going through the bachelor in social work program at the University of Montana but hung out at the Pov for a completely different reason. I couldn't understand what the reason was at that time. However, years later, walking down the streets of Olympia during my first year of street outreach and running into Billy on 4th Ave. helped solidify things for me. Our lives had lined back up.
I ended up in Olympia not for Evergreen, not for a job and not for family. I ended up in Olympia for chosen family. "Chosen family" refers to non-blood related friends that are so significantly supportive in one's life that they are considered to be family. I came to Olympia because I had exhausted all other resources in my life except for my chosen family. I had to build up my chosen family in order to survive. I am endlessly grateful to report that my blood family is incredible supportive of me in all that I do, but there was major rebuilding that had to take place to make that true today.
The reason street outreach is so important is because we go to the people and the people expect us. Formal social services create a fierce power imbalance between "social worker/staff person" and "client". During street outreach this power imbalance is greatly reduced and the most important thing is not the intake forms, demographic gathering, policy writing or program measures. The most important thing is the relationships and solidarity we build over time from sharing life struggles with one another. This trust and solidarity is what gets people to be successful in services. Without it, people will always fall through the cracks.
I am not homeless. I do hang out with homeless people nearly everyday of my life. For people living on the streets, chosen family is everything. For so many on the streets they have lost contact with family and have been physically or emotionally separated. They have built a chosen family in order to survive. I look for Billy everyday when I am downtown the same that way I looked for Derek "Dudeman" McDougal and Uncle George--two other homeless men in our community that died over the last year and a half. I consider Billy part of my chosen family. I know his heritage, his story and he knows mine. His life was not without hardship, pain, suffering and bad choices. But neither is mine. He was not perfect and acted selfishly at times, as do I.
Since the winter of 2012, myself and two other dedicated street outreach workers, Cassie and Jefferson, have been trying to find a way to bridge the trust and solidarity we have built as outreach workers with the world of social services. The People's House has been contested in the community and been the catalyst of many difficult conversations. In the course of the past year and half Billy is the third death in the homeless community of men over 35 years of age. Sadly, this number is probably an underrepresentation of the reality. The need for the People's House is obvious and deaths among the homeless community highlight the demand. The deaths of Dudeman, Uncle George and Billy were all preventable. What if they had adequate, accessible shelter? What if they had access to treatment services and support groups that accepted them as they were? What if they felt like they had their basic needs met? What if they felt supported instead of pushed to the margins?
I light a candle for everyone that has died and no one claimed their body. I light a candle for everyone that has died with hurtful loose ends they weren't able to repair. I light a candle for everyone that has died that was abandoned by the military after serving during war time. I light a candle for everyone that has died that struggled to be their best self. I light a candle for the most beautiful people in the world that have risen out of the depths.
The last few days the air has felt thick with new life. We must hold on to hope! Rest in peace my friend, you will be greatly missed.