March 2014 Groundviews: ‘We saw a need; we met it’

Groundviews is Solid Ground’s quarterly newsletter for our friends and supporters. Below is the March 2014 Groundviews lead story; please visit our website to read the entire issue online.

Frank Chopp – Washington State Speaker of the House, Solid Ground Senior Advisor and Fremont Public Association Executive Director from 1983 to 2000 – began his more than 40 years of success as a rabble-rouser, innovator, community builder and legislator around a Bremerton dinner table. 

Frank Chopp 2013: WA State Speaker of the House & Solid Ground Senior Advisor

Frank Chopp 2013: WA State Speaker of the House & Solid Ground Senior Advisor

He recounts, “Quite often when I was growing up, my dad and my mom would talk about politics, literally at the kitchen table. There was a lot of talk about how much my dad and mom believed in labor organizing, in public service. They grew up in Roslyn, WA, where there used to be a bunch of coal mines. The working conditions and wages there were so bad that they went on strike. My mom and dad would meet for dates on the picket lines outside the coal mines. Mom was tear-gassed by the state troopers during one of those strikes.”

Responding to community 

Frank graduated from the University of Washington and worked as a community organizer in the mid-70s in the Cascade neighborhood. In 1976, he was hired by the City of Seattle’s North Seattle Community Service Center, which supported the then fledgling Fremont Public Association (FPA). “It was very much an opinionated group, very activist oriented, as well as very creative. We were willing to push the envelope in terms of new things, really responding to community rather than sitting back,” he recalls.

The story of how FPA developed what became Solid Ground’s Transportation services is a great example. “There was a need to provide transportation to the elderly so they could get to doctors’ appointments. We started that with a Jesuit Volunteer, with a beat up old van, picking up people, taking them to their doctors, taking them back home. We saw a need; we met it.” FPA then brought together two smaller van programs to become more effective.

“We also wanted to make a political statement,” Frank says, “because this is about the time when Metro took over Seattle Transit. And transit service in Seattle got reduced for a while, because they were trying to spread it around the County. So as a political statement, we called it Seattle PERSONAL Transit. Then it became an ongoing program.

“So we organized many people with disabilities to go down to the Metro Council and say, ‘Look, you’ve got to provide this on a much more comprehensive basis, not just through a bunch of volunteers.’ We organized a couple hundred people to pack the hearing room.

“The initial reaction from Council staff was negative. But then the councilmembers looked out at the crowd and saw people who were very agitated and motivated, and they said, ‘Well, we should start doing something here.’ Eventually it became a much bigger program, serving all of King County with professional drivers and vans, and public funding. So it was a tremendous success.”

Frank adds, “FPA also aggressively pursued coalition building to get more done, organizing the Seattle Food Committee and then the Coalition for Survival Services, comprised of food, shelter and health care providers. The Coalition initially leveraged $500,000 from the City, which over time has grown to more than $40 million in health care and human services.”

Circa 1988: (r) FPA Executive Director Frank Chopp with (l) FPA Board President John Howell

Circa 1988: (r) FPA Executive Director Frank Chopp with (l) FPA Board President John Howell

On the cutting edge of new ideas

Frank describes how his experience with the FPA informed his role as Speaker of the House: “I’m doing the same job there that I was at the FPA; there is no difference. We are trying to figure out the best way to get as much done as possible. So we think carefully about what we see as a need in the community, or across the State, and then we figure out the best way to accomplish that.

“I think it is always important to be on the cutting edge, literally, of new ideas, and looking at new opportunities. You’ve got to constantly be pushing yourself and other people to do more, and also to be as creative as possible.

“As a community organizer, you want the community to be the face of what the need is, and they have to take group action together to get something done. You can actually achieve more if you put the real people who are directly involved front and center; the most effective spokespeople are directly involved.

“You see a need, you see an opportunity and you just go for it!” he says. “Then after you do things, you say, ‘Ok, how should this best be organized?’ The main thing is to start acting, doing things.”

Visit our Timeline of Accomplishments for more information about Solid Ground’s 40+ year history of innovation, partnership and action.

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The One Night Count: a lesson in gratitude

SKCCH logoAs we gathered in the wee hours of Friday, January 24 at the Compass Housing Alliance for our initial One Night Count volunteer briefing, I thanked the twinkling stars above it wasn’t raining. Over 800 of us would spread out across King County to search for and count people sleeping outside without shelter. The One Night Count (organized by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness) would be a snapshot of homelessness between the hours of 2 and 5am.

As the count began, my team and I quietly weaved our way around the streetlamp-lit areas first, peeking into parked cars and doorways. There was no one in sight. It seemed as if everyone else in the world had vanished. That feeling was probably what allowed me to peer into the dark gaps between dumpsters, or make my way into the spaces between buildings I would never, under normal circumstances, walk into at night. The mood was warm – light, like the glow from the lamps overhead. But that would change.

The cold reality
As the condensation slowly turned to frost, the warmth I had felt was replaced with a shiver. A large park was last on our map to check. We had been told before setting out that we would likely find people here; people really do come to this park to sleep. I was fearful; beyond the reach of the sentinel streetlights, the shadowed expanse behind the vine-choked fence was eerie and unnerving.

It’s one thing to think about the experience of homelessness while warm and safe in bed, but actually going to places where people without homes might sleep was entirely different. I couldn’t imagine having to decide where to sleep each night, let alone the circumstances that would lead me to believe that entering a dark park – without a flashlight – was the best option. What I felt was probably only a glimpse of the fear people experiencing homelessness deal with every day.

We found no one sleeping in the park, however – perhaps we just couldn’t see them. As we ended our search and began our walk back to our group’s meeting spot, we admitted how relieved we were to have a zero tally. That’s when we met John (name changed for privacy).

A face of homelessness
I knew immediately when I saw him that he was homeless. No one, if they could help it, would be out wearing only a thin hoodie and track pants. He threw a smile our way then politely asked us who we were with – noting the bright yellow “volunteer” stickers plastered all over our clothes. A member of our group explained what we were doing out so late at night. John paused and looked down, and then said that he, too, was without a home.

He told us his story and of the complications preventing him from getting the help he needed. All the problems he recounted wove perfectly into the pattern of homelessness – all the issues that agencies like ours are fighting to dismantle. As we talked, he shivered uncontrollably, so strongly at one point he almost lost his balance. And then, diplomatically, he asked us if there was anything we could do to help.

My coworker and I locked eyes; no words were needed to express how we felt. We had nothing to offer at that moment. If we felt helpless, John’s feelings of utter hopelessness must have been overwhelming. Indeed, he started to sob for a moment in the crook of his arm, hiding his face so we couldn’t see. With tears still caught in the lines under his eyes, he explained his medical condition and the barriers he’s faced seeking treatment.

Clearly suffering from the cold, he said he needed to go to the hospital and asked if we could call 9-1-1, so we did. Fearful of what might have happened to him if we hadn’t been there to call for help, I was suddenly grateful for the icy phone I squeezed in my pocket. He asked us to stay with him until the ambulance arrived. He was still shaking and having trouble standing, so we walked over to the stairs behind us so he could sit. We continued to talk – about his childhood and how he got his name – named after his father’s wartime buddy. He made jokes about what it was like fighting for bathroom time in a house with four sisters.

A human connection
When the fire truck pulled up, he held out his hand to me to shake as he thanked us. He did not let go, but held my hand as he continued to talk on, not wanting us to leave. I didn’t try to pull away. How long had it been since he was able to just talk to someone – for someone to listen? How long since he was comforted by another person’s touch? No, I wouldn’t let go until he did – or until the paramedics made me, which is what happened.

We didn’t wait to see if they would take John somewhere or leave him; after touching base with our whole group, we went our separate ways. And as I drove by on my way home, John was gone. I hoped he was on his way to a warm bed.

The impact of that night lasted far longer than the cold that soaked into my bones after only three hours outside. I shivered the rest of the morning thinking about John and my experience participating in the One Night Count – my electric blanket turned all the way up. Two pairs of socks, two sweaters, a hoodie, and two pairs of pants weren’t enough to warm me – inside or out. While the experience of homelessness is impossible to understand in just a few hours’ time, I came away with a very important lesson that I keep reminding myself of: Be grateful for all that I have – not just a warm bed or a cell phone, but a loved one’s open ears and caring embrace.

If you are interested in getting involved or would like more information on the One Night Count, please visit: www.homelessinfo.org.

50th anniversary of War on Poverty a time to celebrate, reflect & rededicate

On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson gave the State of the Union address and launched what he called the War on Poverty, stating:

Many Americans live on the outskirts of hope – some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.

“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

President Lyndon Baines Johnson

President Lyndon Baines Johnson

This historic call to action led to the Economic Opportunity Act, the Food Stamp Act and the Voting Rights Act. Additionally, it led to the creation of an array of federally funded programs targeting various aspects of poverty, including Community Action Programs, Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid, Community Health Centers, Pell Grants, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Job Corps, Legal Services and the Federal Work-Study Program.

Solid Ground and our forebears – the Fremont Public Association and the North Seattle Community Service Center – were formed out of the Community Action movement. We are one of 30 Community Action Agencies (CAA) in Washington State and more than 1,100 across our country, serving people living on low incomes in every state as well as Puerto Rico and the Trust Territories.

Fifty years later, we know that poverty and social and economic inequities remain an unresolved and unacceptable reality in our country – a chronic and severe problem that disproportionately impacts people of color. I recognize this reality and I also reject the claim that the war to end poverty was a failure. In the ensuing five decades, our societal problems have become much more complex and our country’s economic growth continues to benefit an increasingly smaller portion of our nation’s population.

Through the past 40 years, Solid Ground and our Washington State Community Action Partnership have helped hundreds of thousands of people living on low-incomes change their lives for the better. Once, we focused on passing out food and clothes and finding people day jobs. As the causes and attributes of poverty have become more complex, so have our services. Now we address the multiple intersections of homelessness, domestic violence, mental health, mobility, education achievement, financial literacy and asset building, access to affordable health care, food and nutrition, and institutional racism.

Through 40+ years of innovation, partnership and action, we have accomplished much, and there is obviously much more to do. Among Solid Ground’s priorities in the coming year are:

  • Representing the nonprofit community on Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee, which is charged with delivering an actionable set of recommendations for increasing the minimum wage within the City of Seattle.
  • Continuing our leadership on the Equity in Education Coalition to address the achievement gap and deliver on the promise of a quality education for all Washingtonians.
  • Work with the national learning cluster to further Financial Empowerment and Asset Building efforts for our constituents.
  • Implement Rapid Re-Housing, Trauma-Informed Care and other pilot programs as we continually seek out best practices and more successful interventions.
  • Through direct services, and in collaboration with our education and community partners, ensure that all youth served by Solid Ground are on a stable path toward post-secondary education and career success.
  • Leverage the Affordable Care Act and expanded Medicaid, in partnership with King County, to ensure that all of our residents have equitable access to quality affordable medical and dental coverage.
  • Increase and improve the ways we engage with our community, especially by involving the voices and real-life experiences of people living on low incomes in the political process and in shaping our work.

2014 is both the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty and the 40th Anniversary of Solid Ground! In 1964, President Johnson ended his State of the Union Address by saying, “I ask you now in the Congress and in the country to join with me in expressing and fulfilling that faith in working for a nation, a nation that is free from want and a world that is free from hate – a world of peace and justice, and freedom and abundance, for our time and for all time to come.” In 2014, that statement is my commitment and my ask of each of you.

Editors noteOne of the ways we will be recognizing this milestone is by providing platforms to lift up voices and stories from the struggle to overcome poverty and thrive. Soon, we will recast the Solid Ground Blog as the Story Ground, to host our stories and yours. Sign up here to have posts emailed to you, or contact Communications Director Mike Buchman to learn more about sharing your story.

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