Article from Tim Ransom (former board present and current board member) in the Spring 2014 Special Edition Newsletter from The Olympia Unitarian Universality Congregation.
The meetings of the Board and the Congregation [to vote on hosting Camp Quixote in February of 2007] were two of the most incredible and wonderful events in my life as a member of the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation. The decisions were not easy—here we were essentially flying in the face of municipal code and laws, the wishes and fears of probably the vast majority of our neighbors, and our own fears and lack of understanding of the implications of what we were doing. And there was vigorous disagreement—while the goal of helping others was clear, how best to go about it while fulfilling our own rules of governance and protecting the congregation was fiercely debated. But in the end we acted with one heart and head.”
I wrote that years ago, not long after the Board of Trustees of the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation (OUUC) first invited a rag-tag group of homeless men and women and their political advocates to take up residence in tents on the lawn adjacent to our small Out of the Woods shelter for families. The import and impact of those first events stay with me today. The story of the development of Camp Quixote and its eventual evolution into Quixote Village deserves a full-length book!. Easily a dozen congregations and hundreds of volunteers have participated, and along the way many heroes have stepped up to take on the herculean tasks of coordination and support. Their stories deserve to be told, as well. But here I will limit myself to the part that our church congregation played in getting it all started.
It all began when a delegation of Unitarian Universalist Evergreen students came to our February 2007 board meeting. They were from a group of homeless people and their activist supporters, the Poor People’s Union, who had set up an encampment on a downtown city lot in protest of a city ordinance that severely restricted the use of sidewalks, and they were being threatened by eviction, and more. We had agreed to meet with them to talk about providing the encampment temporary sanctuary on the front lawn below Out of the Woods. They wanted to move the camp there, and it was my job as board president, along with our minister, the Rev. Arthur Vaeni, to see if that could happen within the context of our congregation, its mission and its approach to decision-making and ministry.
In hindsight it might appear that the obvious answer to this request from us as an Unitarian Universalist congregation would be “Yes.” But back then it quickly became apparent that there was a diversity of opinions about, and understanding of, homelessness and this particular iteration of it, tinged as it was by political activism. Then, too, we had serious concerns that the Board would be subverting the normal procedures of church governance if it acted without seeking the approval of the congregation and informing our neighbors first. After heated debate the Board reached consensus to offer sanctuary, and the next day the campers began their move to our property. Within days special congregational and neighborhood meetings followed;. Overruling the board’s intention to limit the camp’s tenure at OUUC to 45 days, an enthusiastic congregation voted to offer them a full 90 days. This, despite the fact that the Olympia City Manager warned us that as far as the city was concerned, an encampment on church property without a permit was just as illegal as the one downtown had been.
The true test began, of course, when the encampment, now calling itself Camp Quixote, in solidarity with a tent city protest in Paris called the Children of Don Quixote, arrived on our property. As Rev. Vaeni will attest, pandemonium reigned. It had been a wet winter, and the Out of the Woods lawn immediately revealed its true nature as a wetland. Eventually volunteers provided truck loads of wood chips, and later pallets were used to keep tents out of the mud. It was apparent right from the beginning that the camp was going to need a great deal of help to survive and not implode. At first some of this was provided by the activist contingent, people like Rob Richards and Phil Owen of Bread and Roses, but then more and more members of our congregation quietly slipped through the woods to help set up tents, spread woodchips and welcome the residents.
The presence of Camp Quixote on our property brought us many daunting challenges, not the least of which was the negative PR we were receiving from the local newspaper. But first and foremost on the list were negotiations with the City of Olympia to get a conditional use permit to legally host the camp (despite the fact that federal case law clearly indicated that faith communities have a constitutional right to provide such a ministry). Out of these negotiations came the rules regarding sanitation and safety procedures and eligibility for admission to the camp (background checks, no outstanding warrants, no use of drugs or alcohol, and so on) that were eventually to become features of the residents’ own self-governance.
Another requirement was that the host church hold a community meeting to inform its neighbors of the camp’s coming and provide them an opportunity to voice concerns. Rev. Vaeni had already visited many of the neighbors and had learned that there was a great deal of mistrust and fear among them. Some even threatened to sue us if things went wrong. But the meetings proved to be a mixed blessing. While they were a chore, they were also a great opportunity, for the OUUC congregation especially, to get to know our neighbors and begin to build community with them. They were also an opportunity for the community to see growing support of the camp from city planning staff and police, who attended to help address our neighbors’ issues and attest to the validity of our approach.
From the very start the camp’s residents and their supporters talked of finding a site where it could be set up permanently, perhaps on someone’s private property, perhaps at Evergreen State College. But time slipped by and nothing came of it. Meanwhile, Rev. Vaeni and members of our church began enlisting the support of other faith communities in the region. Eventually 14 religious leaders from eight churches, Temple Beth Hatfiloh, the Quakers, the Community for Interfaith Celebration and the Baha’i signed a letter exhorting the greater community to make a place in its midst for this response to homelessness and poverty, saying “Our willingness to reach out to those at the margins of society defines us as people of faith and morality. If we fail in this outreach, we fail our entire community.”
Suddenly we were on a countdown to the end of the 90 days OUUC was allowed to host the camp. Efforts to find another host were redoubled, and at the last minute volunteers from the United Churches of Olympia convinced their congregation and leadership to step up. Thus began the peripatetic adventures of Camp Quixote, as it moved every 90 days (later 180 days) from host congregation to host congregation, a prodigious labor that would sorely test the perseverance of the residents and of their many supporters, who time and again showed up to help dismantle and cleanup the encampment, truck it to the new site and then set it up again. Support of the camp truly became an interfaith activity as five faith communities in Olympia (OUUC, United Churches, St. John’s Episcopal, First Methodist and First Christian) and one in Lacey (Lacey Community Church) became hosts. Many others, including Temple Beth Hatfiloh, Westwood Baptist Church and the Muslim community, provided financial and logistical support, help with the moves and meals, and other forms of assistance.
Recognizing from the start that the future of Camp Quixote would require an extraordinary level of coordination and cooperation, Rev. Vaeni began a series of faith community meetings late in February that engaged the participants, including lay leaders from the churches, camp residents and regional experts on homelessness, in educational and planning exercises. Eventually these gatherings gave rise to Panza (named after Don Quixote’s squire, Sancho Panza), a Camp Quixote support group originally made up of ordained and lay leaders charged with coordinating moves and hosting, facilitating the residents’ development of self-government, and pursuing the passage of supportive ordinances among the local municipalities. Fairly quickly, under the leadership of its OUUC representatives, including Selena Kilmoyer and myself, Panza established itself as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and established a board of directors.
The next few years saw a great deal of energy spent by the Panza Board and the supporters of the Camp to work out the logistics of host church scheduling and the providing of support by volunteers. It was apparent from the start that the best way to build support for the Camp was by encouraging people to visit it, meet the residents and help out. Moreover, as part of the original agreement with the City, volunteers were needed to staff a host table in the Camp 24 hours a day. This extraordinary commitment was initially made with the idea of protecting the neighborhood, but soon it became obvious that the real value was in providing security for the residents themselves. During this time, as well, a flood of friends of Camp Quixote, along with dedicated residents and Panza members, testified at public hearings as the local municipalities—Olympia, Tumwater, Lacey and Thurston County— one by one passed ordinances allowing for church-sponsored tent camps within their jurisdictions. Perseverance and growing community support were building a constituency.
Over time the residents of Camp Quixote changed, as some moved on to more permanent housing, jobs, or opportunities elsewhere. Others found they could not obey the self-imposed rules of camp residency and had to leave. But despite these changes, one idea remained constant: to find a permanent site, perhaps one where tents could be exchanged for permanent structures. Eventually this concept became a guiding principle for Panza, and when I rejoined the Board in 2012, something truly amazing had happened. The Board had doubled in size to include both faith community members and professionals with expertise in architecture, finance and social work. At the helm was OUUC member and long-time volunteer, Jill Severn. And, Panza had just received notice that the state legislature had set aside over $1.5 million to build Quixote Village, a permanent supportive housing community for chronically homeless adult men and women! And Thurston County had promised to lease to Panza, for a dollar a year for 41 years, a 2.7 acre site in southwest Olympia upon which to build!
The rest of the story is one of a community—the constituency built during seven years of fighting for and growing support for Camp Quixote—coming together to make the Village happen. There is not space here to list all the people, churches, businesses, elected officials and staff that went to extraordinary lengths to help, as we sought additional funding, responded to the concerns and then legal attacks of some of our neighbors in southwest Olympia, applied for permits, struggled with the limitations of the site and our funding—all the one hundred and one things a home builder must contend with, multiplied several-fold. And there were current residents of Camp Quixote who spent hours to help develop the concept and design of the Village, while all the time still facing all the difficulties of life in a tent.
Our struggles were suspended on Christmas Eve, 2013, when the 30 residents of Camp Quixote became inhabitants of Quixote Village.