What I learned in Aberdeen
I just got back from a 3 day trip to the city of Aberdeen, WA where some friends are making local history. The Washington State courts have repeatedly upheld that government must take the “least restrictive” approach to religious organizations that claim a mandate to serve and care for the poor. What that has meant in practice is that local municipalities have set 90 day caps on durations that churches are allowed to host tent cities on their property.In an attempt to draw those same tourist dollars that every other struggling small town is working to draw the city has villainized those outside and now specifically targeted those who sleep by the waterfront in or around a space where the city’s Favorite Son, grunge rocker Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, once slept and is remembered today [edit: after initially posting this piece I did see a number of pieces that challenged this notion. Like most of us, Cobain seems to have been interested in presenting himself a particular way and the question of what exactly had happened in those years is left somewhat open-ended] – leaving them nowhere to go. Let’s be clear, if Cobain was sleeping there earlier this year he would have received an eviction notice like everyone else. So the city gives people outside here a date they have to move by, let’s not ask where they should move to, the city seems to think that that is not their problem, even when confronted by the fact that the support systems available are inadequate to handle the volume of unemployed and underemployed people in the town.
The organization I spent my time in Aberdeen with is called Chaplains on the Harbor (CotH), affiliated with the Episcopalian Church. They work to love those outside and are all about meeting them where they are. So when their friends ask them to call the media (because like it or not the media outlets won’t listen to our friends outside if they call) Sarah and Aaron at CotH do what they do best, a line I heard repeatedly and saw in action all week: “amplify their voices”.
The local paper made the wonderfully humanizing video of our friends (linked to above), and then Rev. Sarah reframed the eviction at a city council meeting. But perhaps even more importantly she works to make the city council meeting a safe space for the houseless to speak by lending them her own legitimacy. As a result of these actions the eviction has been postponed giving the folks at Amazing Grace Lutheran the chance to make their space available for the creation of Rivercity – Aberdeen’s first ever sanctioned tent city. Like I said, these folks are making history, and it’s not “allies” and “homeless people”, it’s those most effected and less effected by forces that drive poverty. Even here in Portland it’s not that different, we’re all moving closer and closer to being in trouble. We have rising costs of housing, and off the top of my head I can think of three families that I know personally that in the last 6 months were in places where they could easily been on the verge of houselessness through no fault of their own (even if it had been their fault, so what? People deserve better to be thrown to the wolves when they make poor decisions), more and more people are in positions where by no fault of their own they can’t afford rent/mortgage and now they are relying on a city more interested in drawing tourists than ensuring sanitary affordable housing.
The city of Aberdeen is a town trying to figure out what it is now that the timber mills are gone. I loved it, reminds me a little bit of the town my Dad grew up in, where I spent many summers growing up; full of blue collar, salt of the earth kinds of folks and – unlike the suburbs that seem to almost want to prevent a story of place – is clearly full of a storied past. And does Aberdeen ever have a past! It’s full of working people working to organize in order to prevent themselves from being abused and taken advantage of by those in power – and this is still the story today.