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Maureen's Musings: Remembering voices from the past keeps the advocacy going strong

Updated: Jan 8, 2022

By Maureen Howard

Dignity City Columnist

Forty years ago, I went from being an unemployed single mother to becoming the Executive Director of the Martin Luther King Ecumenical Center. The center was a tiny community organization located in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma, which had developed out of the faith of the people of three churches, African Methodist Episcopal, Episcopal and Roman Catholic. I thought I was going to gently close down what had been a wonderful experiment across lines of religion, race, class and disability.

On my first day of work in January, 1982, a man carrying his bedroll came to the door in the old red house we used for an office. He didn’t ask for a room; he asked for work. I gave him work and paid him minimum wage for it. He thanked me and left. Every day more people arrived; they came for work, for food, for medication and for shelter. One longtime volunteer said, “Some nights I just go home and cry.”

And so I began my first 10-year journey working with people who had no place to live.

As the human pain I absorbed daily from the people who came for help receded, I learned to give voice to the fierce kind of anger that emerged. How could this be? That children had no place to live? That people taking direction from voices only they could hear were living on our streets?

I was listening, learning and finding others who, like me, believe that people have a right to a place to live. We used our experience, our educations, and our commitment to educate others about what it meant to be without a home, advocate for funding, seek changes in unjust laws and try to ensure protections that were already in place. We never expected that 40 years later there would be even more people without homes. Some of us stayed in the work, some left, some like me returned. For me, it was housing policy, the U.S. Foreign Service, then more housing — at Habitat for Humanity — and now I’m back to advocating for people without homes.

Pierce County and the City of Tacoma committed to ending Street Homelessness by Nov. 1, 2021. It was always an audacious goal. The number of shelter beds has increased, but not enough to provide safe shelter for all. Despite Centers for Disease Control guidance and federal law, the sweeps continue. We find ourselves trying to come to agreement on what makes a “safe” sweep or clearance of an encampment. Community volunteers and people with lived experience of homelessness join professional homeless outreach teams to help people relocate to safe shelter and still many people simply move their tent to another public parking strip and set up yet another home.

Homelessness and providing housing that is affordable to ordinary people move to the top of local city and county lists. Elected officials promise change; some generous, others punitive. Does a city or county actually need a “No Camping Ban?” American Rescue Plan Act money brings unheard of resources. Who will benefit?

All good questions. And when Dignity City emerges and I ask the question, “Can I write a column?” They say, yes.

So, welcome to the first installment of Maureen’s Musings. Six hundred words on whatever I want to say, whenever Dignity City wants me to say it. I’ll write about housing, income and health through the lens of homelessness, poverty and illness. I’ll ask hard questions, share any answers I have — and I invite readers to offer questions and answers.

And with every column, I’ll hear the little girl who asked, “How long will my family be allowed to stay?” in that G St. emergency shelter in 1990. I’ll hear the national leader searching for his brother anywhere on the West Coast; and the mother wanting to know if I had seen her son.

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