Days of Action, Advocacy and Accountability

Gordon McHenry, Jr. with his son Austin, MLK Day 2014

Gordon McHenry, Jr. with his son Austin, MLK Day 2014

January 15th is the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I spent the day at our Solid Ground Sand Point Housing Campus meeting with our Residential Staff as we worked to identify and problem solve barriers and challenges that constrain how we serve the 175 families who live in our housing at Sand Point. It was an intense day when we consider the lived experiences of our families and our commitment to strengthening their lives.

Yesterday, the national holiday in honor of Dr. King was a day of Action, Advocacy and Accountability. Dr. King reminds us:

So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind – it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact – I can only submit to the edict of others.”

President & CEO Gordon McHenry, Jr. (2nd from right) discusses ideas for making the strongest impact when talking to your legislators.

President & CEO Gordon McHenry, Jr. (2nd from right) discusses ideas for making the strongest impact when talking to your legislators.

We do have the right to vote, and electing responsible leaders is an important first step. Holding our leaders accountable for the laws they enact or fail to enact is action that is still needed, especially for our residents who are trapped by poverty and oppression.

This is why I was in Olympia with Solid Ground’s Statewide Poverty Action Network on MLK Lobby Day 2015. I hope during this Legislative Session, you will advocate for equity and justice, and support our advocacy efforts.

An effective way is to contact your legislators by calling the Legislative Hotline, 1.800.562.6000. Join in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Take action to advocate on behalf of our Solid Ground program participants and residents, and in doing so, help hold our electeds accountable.

“The Mountaintop”: Reflections on Dr. King’s Legacy

April 3, 1968 was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech, and much like an artist whose work is only truly seen after they’ve passed, so began the career of one of America’s greatest leaders. The groundwork for what would become Dr. King’s legacy had already been clearly laid in Montgomery with the bus boycotts, in the Selma voting rights movement to his famed march on Washington in 1963 where he delivered his “I Have a Dream”  speech. But truly great leaders have ways of speaking to the human condition both in life and most especially in death. They find ways to push us to wrestle with our collective conscience, they get us to see that our individual worlds are far bigger than we imagine, and they ask us to look beyond the present to a future that could be if we just believed.

1989_MLK-edited

Dr. King conjured a reality firm in his understanding but fanciful in ours. He saw the civil rights struggle in its totality, its ebbs and flows, its setbacks and ultimate victory. But isn’t that what “prophets” do? They stand in the present looking into some other world yet to come? They try to persuade us to hold on and assure us that what we’re seeing isn’t all there is, that it’ll get better.

In his “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Dr. King takes his audience on a journey through history as uniquely seen by him.

From his final speech:

Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.”

Dr. King used religious imagery to describe how he viewed history, its eventual arc towards justice and how he would more than likely not see it with us. (Prophets seldom bask in their accolades, they speak their truth and then they fade so their words can live on.) But these lines are particularly striking as we see a man moving fluidly through history to a point of its uncertainty to eventual justice:

I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his 95 theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but ‘fear itself.’ But I wouldn’t stop there.

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’

Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the 20th century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.”

Although Dr. King’s appearance at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters) was in support of local sanitation workers, the effect of the moment leaped out and across history’s pages. He saw the Promised Land as clearly as we see the here and now. It was all real to him then because he knew that sustained intelligent and humane resistance moves mountains. People can’t just look at the world and sigh, they have to be willing to give up some of the cynicism and believe a better world is possible.

It is the fate of some to walk along history’s periphery as it moves outward, where events swirl like an unpredictable vortex as they did in the ‘60s, and their full implications are impossible to fathom. It is here along these folds of probabilities not yet fully conceived of or realized that Dr. King walked freely. That’s part of King’s magic: He was able to help us as a society conceive of something reality clearly didn’t lend itself to in ‘68. He saw beyond the water cannons, biting dogs, and threat to life and limb to the “better angels of our natures.”

The last lines of his speech:

And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!!”

With those words ended the “Mountaintop” speech on the last day in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but they also opened a window into a man who was resolved to allow events to occur even though the outcome surely meant his death.

Dr. King’s dream is like humanity’s relentless quest for perfection: We strive and continue towards it, even though we may never attain it, but it’s in the striving we become better people.

Solid Ground endorses Prop 1B for Universal Pre-K

quality-preschool-logoRecognizing the importance of providing equitable access to quality affordable early childhood education, Solid Ground’s Board of Directors endorses the City of Seattle Preschool Program Initiative, Proposition 1B, on Seattle’s November 2014 ballot (as proposed by the Seattle City Council and endorsed by the Mayor of Seattle). Solid Ground acknowledges the importance of childcare workers being trained, fairly compensated and having ongoing access to professional development opportunities.

Through more than 40 developing community responses to poverty, Solid Ground seeks to identify and work on root, or structural, causes of poverty. Identifying effective strategies to undo generational poverty, we are increasingly focused on the education achievement gap and equity issues.

Today’s best research says that early childhood education is one of the cornerstones of future educational and life success. All children in our community should have the opportunity to begin their schooling with a high-quality education that is delivered by well-trained, well-paid educators in a sustainable system with long-term capacity.

The measure being promoted by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle City Council will create a pilot program for affordable pre-K that ramps up over time, emphasizes educational quality, and is priced on a sliding scale for low- and middle-income families. It will be funded by a property tax levy. Solid Ground supports this initiative and looks forward to working with the newly-forming City Department of Education & Early Learning.

While we are endorsing the City proposal, we are sensitive to concerns raised by the competing Initiative. The high cost of early childhood education has created class barriers to access. And the typical low-paying salaries belie the critical role early childhood professionals play in growing healthy communities. The bottom line: All children in Seattle should have equal access to high-quality early childhood education.

Amicus brief to State Supreme Court: New revenue needed to McCleary

Last Monday, August 4, Pacifica Law Group filed an amicus brief with the Washington State Supreme Court on behalf Five-year-old-girl at the library.of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center (WSBPC), making it clear that legislators cannot responsibly address the requirements of the McCleary decision to fully fund education without raising new revenue.

Joining WSBPC as co-signers on the brief are Centerstone, Equity in Education Coalition, Eldercare Alliance, Solid Ground, Statewide Poverty Action Network and students from the University of Washington.

The amicus brief argues that the math doesn’t pencil out when you try to fully fund basic education without new revenue. It details the devastating impact of potential budget cuts on students, low-income families, communities of color, supports for older adults and children, and more.

More than two years after the court’s McCleary ruling was issued, the legislature has largely relied on unsustainable funding to make additional investments in basic education and remains behind schedule in adequately funding education.

For over forty years, Solid Ground has worked to end poverty through delivery of direct services, working to strengthen communities and advocating for public policies to address the causes and impacts of poverty. Every day at Solid Ground, we serve hundreds of families with children. We see firsthand that children need housing, food, medical care, counseling and more in order to achieve in school. When these basic needs go unmet, children have a difficult time staying in school, much less succeeding in school.

The amicus brief recommends that the court encourages the legislature to raise additional revenue that is stable and dependable in order to fully fund basic education. Failing to raise revenue to meet our education funding needs would result in cuts to other areas of the state budget that kids need to thrive. Without stable housing, access to health care and nutritious food, and other supports that create long-term economic security, we simply won’t create better outcomes for all kids in Washington. And isn’t that what McCleary is all about?

Legislative Update: Human trafficking

By Washington State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D)

guest columnThroughout the years I have spent in the Legislature, tackling the issues of affordable housing and human trafficking has been of particular importance to me. It is clear why these issues are each important to address, but it is often overlooked how they are so intrinsically linked. Back in 2002, thanks to the leadership of former Rep. Velma Veloria and the Asian & Pacific Islander Women & Family Safety Center, Washington became the first state in the nation to pass specific legislation related to human trafficking, and in 2003 enacted the first state law creating crimes of human trafficking. In all, we have passed 36 bills to mitigate this terrible problem and have established ourselves as a leader in anti-trafficking law both nationally and internationally.

By confronting the barriers people face when applying for housing, Washington has also made progress with regard to fair and affordable housing policies. Most recently, we passed two bills to address problems with tenant screening practices, but there is still a lot of work to do. In 2012, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 6315, requiring landlords to provide screening criteria in writing for prospective renters, and listing all of the requirements that will be used to determine eligibility for tenancy. And in 2013, SB 5568 added protections for domestic violence survivors in the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act with regard to screening practices.

What keeps many of our most vulnerable community members without having stable housing is a combination of screening practices for rental applications, rising rent prices, and the lack of funding for supportive services and community organizations that work to provide critical services to survivors of human trafficking.

capitol building, capitol building in olympia

Capitol building in Olympia, WA

Access to affordable, safe and stable housing is key to combating trafficking. According to the King County Committee to End Homelessness, “Young people experiencing homelessness are vulnerable to being coerced into prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation.” Approximately 5,000 minors experience homelessness in King County every year, with about 500 working in the sex trade any given night. This is deeply alarming, as individuals without a stable, safe and affordable home are not only more likely to be victims of trafficking, but also are more likely to be re-victimized by their abusers if they are unable to secure safe and stable accommodations. And even though my bill, SB 5482, became law in 2011 (authorizing local governments to use affordable housing funds to provide housing assistance to victims of human trafficking and their families), we did not provide any state funds to meet the additional need.

How screening practices impact survivors of human trafficking

When landlords screen a prospective tenant for a rental application, they generally perform a background criminal records check, credit check and public records check. As a result of a system that treats victims like offenders, many trafficking survivors have criminal records – typically related to prostitution – that can inhibit their ability to retain housing, even if the conviction was many years ago. While the Legislature passed House Bill 1292 in the 2014 session – to vacate prostitution records for trafficking survivors – there are still concerns regarding tenant screening, especially related to criminal and civil records that are easily accessible and cause tenants to be wrongfully denied housing.

What housing affordability means for struggling individuals and families

Housing affordability is a serious concern for many in our community. It is increasingly problematic for seniors on a fixed income, foster youth aging out of the system, immigrants, refugees and the mentally ill. For trafficking survivors who are working to gain new life skills and employment training, housing affordability is also critical. Oftentimes, if an individual has been forced into labor, she or he has not been allowed to attend school – sometimes for decades – and has not had opportunities for work training.

Why isn’t there more funding for services that support trafficking survivors?

With an international land border, being the closest state in mainland U.S., and having numerous large ports to which people are brought from Asia, Washington continually fights an uphill battle to eliminate human trafficking. Protecting human services funding has been ever more difficult in a divided state Legislature still working its way out of the Great Recession – and it has been very challenging to reach agreement on increasing the dollars directed to critical services that prevent and abate human trafficking.

In part due to these challenges, grassroots organizations in our state – particularly ones that provide direct services and support to survivors – are a lifeline for those trying to escape sexual or labor exploitation. And even though anti-trafficking is an issue that is far less partisan than most, the underground nature of the problem and significant budget restraints mean we still struggle to bring much-needed relief to survivors at the state level.

Where we go from here

Legislative efforts to combat trafficking are increasingly turning toward supporting survivors and holding abusers accountable for propagating such crimes. For example, HB 1791 passed this year, adding sex trafficking to the existing definition of sex crimes, and was amended with language from a bill of mine (SB 6017) to allow local law enforcement to recoup costs of investigating crimes related to prostitution and sexual exploitation of minors. Another bill, SB 6339, introduced by my colleague Sen. Karen Fraser, created the crime of ‘coercion of involuntary servitude’ – including the withholding of documentation of a person’s immigration status – and established this crime as a felony.

These are important measures, but it is clear there is still a great amount of work to be done. I am continuing to work on finding solutions to these problems throughout this summer and fall and into the next legislative session.

If you have questions, concerns or ideas you’d like to share, I encourage you to contact me at jeanne.kohl-welles@leg.wa.gov or 206.281.6854. You may also visit my office at 3131 Western Avenue, Suite 421, Seattle, WA 98121.

Washington State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D) represents the 36th Legislative District (including the Queen Anne, Interbay, Ballard, Magnolia, Belltown, and parts of the Phinney Ridge and Greenwood neighborhoods). She has been the sponsor of many affordable housing and anti-trafficking bills in the Washington State Senate, helping make us the leading state in the country in efforts to eliminate human trafficking. Senator Kohl-Welles received Seattle Against Slavery’s 2010 Lincoln Freedom Award for her anti-trafficking legislative efforts, February 2013 Legislator of the Week, and the 2011, 2012 and 2013 Housing Hero Award from the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance and Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. She has served in the Washington State Senate since 1994, following three years in the state House of Representatives.

Statewide Poverty Action Network’s 2014 Voter Guide

You’ve been seeing commercials, hearing ads on the radio, and receiving mail from candidates and initiative campaigns. It is clearly time to vote in our state’s primary election!

If you’ve received your ballot in the mail recently, you may see some old familiars and some new unknowns on there. It can be overwhelming trying to find resources on the right information about where these candidates stand on the issues facing your community. With so many pressing matters facing our communities, your participation in this election is critical.

Every election season, Statewide Poverty Action Network Poverty Action Voter Guide(SPAN) takes to the streets to register and mobilize voters, AND we talk to the people running for elected office across the state. We sent all running candidates in Washington state a questionnaire on topics ranging from health care to predatory lending to institutional racism, and then published their responses verbatim in this VOTER GUIDE. Over the next few weeks, we’ll add even more information about folks running for U.S. Congress and our positions on the statewide initiatives, too!

Our guide provides the tools you need to help ensure all families have the rights, recognition, and resources needed to thrive. We need great leaders in Olympia to help us forward our legislative agenda to change laws and correct injustices. Now is the time to have a say about the issues facing your community and making sure everyone can meet their basic needs.

These candidates will have substantial impacts on our everyday lives. Don’t let this election pass you by. Read our online voter guide to make informed decisions before mailing your ballot or putting it in a local drop box by 8pm on Tuesday, August 5!

SPAN and Solid Ground are nonpartisan, nonprofit (501c3) organizations that do not support any candidate or political party.

Legislative Update: Fair Tenant Screening Act

This is the first of a series of legislative updates highlighting some of the issues presented before the Washington State Legislature in the 2014 session, focusing on some of the most important bills impacting housing and other issues that directly affect the communities Solid Ground serves. Several bills and other topics will be explained to simplify the complicated legislative process, and emphasize the importance of preparing to advocate for these critical issues in the 2015 legislative session.

SB 6291: Fair Tenant Screening Act (Part III) – An important bill that died in the 2014 session and what this means for Washington renters:

capitol building, capitol building in olympia

Capitol building in Olympia, WA

Arguably one of the most underrated bills to be considered by the Washington State Legislature, the Fair Tenant Screening Act addresses some of the most critical needs for housing accessibility in our state. This bill makes the difference between a family being able to move into safe and affordable housing, or having to remain living in substandard and potentially unhealthy housing. In conjunction with rent increases and lack of affordable housing, application fees and screening criteria are some of the main reasons homelessness continues to be a reality for so many individuals and families across Washington State.

SB 6291, also known as Part III of the Fair Tenant Screening Act, would address rental application screening costs for thousands of tenants. Unfortunately, this bill did not pass in the 2014 session. However, both Part I and II of the Fair Tenant Screening Act, which address access to housing for domestic violence survivors and require the screening criteria in writing, passed in the 2012 and 2013 sessions, respectively. Information on both bills can be accessed in previous Solid Ground Blog posts about the Fair Tenant Screening Act (see Tenant Tip: New law prevents housing discrimination against survivors of domestic violence and Tenant Tip: Fair Tenant Screening Act passed!).

What this bill would have changed:

This bill would have made the housing search fair and affordable. It would have continued to improve housing accessibility by adding a third component to the two mentioned above, thus strengthening the Fair Tenant Screening Act and making affordability a reality for renters seeking housing in our state.

Specifically, SB 6291 would have amended the repeated screening fees that tenants have to pay each time they apply to a new rental by requiring that the tenant pay one fee for a 30-day period. During this 30-day period, any landlord to whom a prospective tenant is applying for housing can access the tenant’s comprehensive report (which can include a credit and criminal background check, eviction and other civil records, rental references, etc.) without passing additional charges to the tenant. A landlord can choose to accept the report provided by the tenant or choose to pay for another report at their own cost, without passing the cost on to the tenant.

Why this bill is important:

Currently a prospective tenant in Washington looking for a new place to rent spends between $30-$375 in application fees, depending on the number of times they are denied by a landlord. Each rental application can cost between $30-$75 (and up) per person, and regardless of whether the information accessed for a background check is the same, the tenant is asked to pay for each application filled out. This bill would save hundreds of thousands of dollars which could then be spent on other housing costs. Currently, rental screening companies in Washington collect millions of dollars from this business practice, while the average renter spends more than half of their income – often three quarters of it – on rent.

3 steps you can take before the next legislative session to address this issue:

  1. Contact your legislator and schedule a 15-minute appointment or coffee with them during interim. They will have more time to sit down and talk with you in the summer and fall. Don’t wait until session.
  2. Bring this bill and other concerns you have. Tell them about how this issue impacts you.
  3. Join an advocacy group, such as the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, to stay up to date on advocacy efforts and learn more about issues that might impact your community.

For more information on this particular bill, this 1/23/14 Senate Financial Institutions, Housing & Insurance Committee meeting video (104:58) provides testimony from housing advocates explaining why this bill is important.

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