OLYMPIA — Hundreds of people rallied on the steps of the Washington Capitol Monday afternoon, calling for housing justice and support from lawmakers.
There didn’t used to be so many people flocking to Olympia for Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day. Gary Akizuki has made the yearly trek from Clark County since 2003, when he was joined by just one or two other people.
“The attention that is now on this is indicative of the number of people who came out today,” he said. “It’s quite reflective of the crisis in our community.”
Akizuki is a longtime Clark County resident and housing advocate, currently serving on the Council for the Homeless board. For the last three years, the Vancouver-based nonprofit has chartered a bus to shuttle dozens of constituents to Olympia to talk with their local legislators about bills related to housing and homelessness. The advocacy day is organized by the Seattle-based Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, which sets a legislative agenda each session.
The crowd on the steps wore red, the color of housing advocacy, and cheered as the names of their legislative districts were called. Those from Clark County’s 17th, 18th and 49th districts whooped and hollered.
Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Anacortes, spoke about needing to be unified in order to solve the state’s homelessness problem.
“This issue is on everyone’s lips. It’s discussed every day,” he said.
Ramel urged the advocates who came to Olympia to tell their personal stories when meeting with legislators.
“When you tell your story, they listen. … They do change their minds,” said Caroline Lopez, the new director of organizing for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.
Before starting her job a few months ago, the Portland resident worked at Council for the Homeless, helping Clark County residents secure housing. With her heart and focus on Southwest Washington, she adds a regional voice to the housing alliance. She recruited a couple of Clark County residents to help lead advocacy day workshops.
They included Vancouver’s Ren Autrey, who spoke about the Resident Action Project. Years ago, when Autrey began advocating on behalf of the homeless, her focus was hyperlocal; she now sees the benefit of broadening her reach and advocating for statewide change.
“Sometimes, Southwest Washington had led the way in some of those laws,” Autrey said. “The change starts with us.”
Not every local lawmaker was available to speak with their Clark County constituents and had staff speak with them instead. Advocates used a cellphone app to report what occurred at each legislator meeting.
Akizuki thinks the lobbying makes a difference. He said he has seen Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, come around on issues, and saw former Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, buck his party at one point.
“This is their people,” Akizuki said.
On Monday, Harris met with Akizuki and others from the 17th Legislative District. A few said they were homeless or knew someone who was homeless and that was why they came to the Capitol.
“I’m sorry that some of you are having a tough time,” Harris said.
The group’s first ask was for $10 million to be invested in the state’s Housing Trust Fund.
“Yeah, $10 million on this budget will be interesting,” Harris said, adding he’ll advocate for the money but expected more funds to be available next session. “We might be able to get a portion of that.”
Carrie Parks, a retired case manager, told Harris about House Bill 2453, which would require property owners to have a legitimate business reason to make a tenant move.
When tenants are hit with a move-out notice, “It’s a stain on your record,” Parks said. “We’d really like to see that reformed.”
Harris said he supports House Bill 1590, which would allow local elected officials to implement a 0.1 percent sales tax increase for affordable housing. He said he’s looking into an amendment to increase the amount.
“I think I’m your friend on a lot of things,” Harris said.
Parks said she was heartened somewhat by the meeting with Harris. Throughout the day, she had a mix of positive and negative experiences with legislators. Parks likes knowing that she’s actively doing something about homelessness rather than sitting back and watching.
“Even with everything we’ve done … it’s not enough,” she told Harris. “We’ve got more people coming into the system than out of it.”
Treating a crisis
Toward the end of Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day, people crowded into a conference room to speak with Rep. Monica Stonier and Sen. Annette Cleveland.
“The problem is outpacing our resources and the work we’re trying to do,” said Stonier, D-Vancouver. “We have to treat it as the crisis that it is. We’re prioritizing funding for housing.”
She’s co-sponsoring House Bill 1694, which would require that landlords accept a three-month payment plan for moving costs (including deposits and fees) when a tenant requests it.
Amy Reynolds, deputy director of homeless service provider Share, asked the legislators to increase the monthly allotment for people receiving the Aged, Blind or Disabled cash grant program. Currently, people staying in shelters get $120 monthly rather than the full $197 monthly.
Cleveland, D-Vancouver, jotted down notes about different bills. The group thanked her for her work with Senate Bill 6426, which would make state-issued identification easier to obtain for homeless people.
Terrell Berry, a housing case manager at Janus Youth Programs, brought up lesser-known bills that would improve access to state IDs for homeless youth. He explained homeless youth and youth exiting foster care don’t have a parent to help them obtain an ID, and often don’t have the necessary documents.
“I’m seeing that personally with clients I work with,” Berry said. “If there was a way to reduce documentation barriers, that would be ideal.”
As legislator meetings wrapped up, some in the group joked they were looking forward to napping on the bus ride back to Clark County after a long day of lobbying. Then, they clambered onto the charter bus and headed south as the sky darkened over the Capitol.