Olympia, WA (10-3-13) — Ben and Denise Charles, founders of Crazy Faith Ministries describe themselves as warriors for the Lord. They have the support of the Nisqually people, Christians everywhere, and the vast majority of Olympia residents in their mission to feed the poor, the halt, the destitute, and the homeless. City of Olympia officials are threatening to criminalize their efforts and ordered them to stop feeding the multitudes on their regular Thursday evening and Saturday morning offerings from a public parking lot across the street from the bus terminal downtown. Ben has declared letting the poor go hungry is not an option. He has refused to comply with the City’s orders.
Some may have read the Bible’s account of Christ ministering to and healing the sick on the Sabbath, a serious violation of the law in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. But, City officials are in no mood to equivocate. They argue the gathering has drawn complaints from local merchants, disrupted traffic flow, interfered with parking, subjected some citizens to aggressive panhandling, endangered jaywalking pedestrians, violated food handling health codes, and left garbage/trash strewn about after the event. Volunteers at the event say they clean the parking lot both when they arrive, and before they leave. Others were seen cautioning attendees not to jaywalk. No panhandling was seen, servers wore gloves, and the food preparations looked clean/fresh.
Not to be outdone, an equally resolute faith based group called City Gates Ministries has dedicated itself to serving the spiritual and basic needs of the poor by setting up their own hot meals and religious services on a nearby public parking lot diagonally adjacent to the one utilized by Crazy Faith. City Gates is also equally reluctant to let the poor go hungry despite the antipathy of City officials. The campaign of Olympia officials to eliminate, remove, or hide the homeless appears to have been stalemated…for the time being. It remains to be seen if they will require the City’s police to criminally cite good Samaritans in a county where no good deed seems to go unpunished.
The event itself was pretty upbeat and mellow, the crowd congenial. The City Gates Ministry feed nearby was conducting a religious service by the time this reporter got to it. Some fact checking with businesses nearby (4th Ave. Tavern, Harlequin Theater, and The Reef restaurant) were not as congratulatory as the CFM organizer, Ben Charles, had claimed. Over all, however, the police presence was nearly invisible and the event seemed to have widespread support…for some pretty intuitive reasons.
The Reef manager on duty that evening allowed as to how there had been some issues with the restaurant’s dumpster (a service they hire) had been filled on a few occasions with the refuse/garbage from the food benefit. He related no other problems associated with the crowd’s actions, but hardly gave it the ringing endorsement Mr. Charles implied when naming it along with the 4th Ave. Tavern and the Harlequin Theater as supporters of his efforts.
The bartender in the 4th Ave. Tavern looked a bit like a pirate, but he didn’t want to be identified any more than the person interviewed at The Reef or, later, the Harlequin Theater staff. He’d worked at the tavern for over 17 years, he said, including those Thursdays the CFM held their benefit for Olympia’s hungry. He objected more to the characterization he chose for the beneficiaries than CFM itself. He, too, had witnessed trash piling up in the tavern’s private dumpster as well as the bed of his pickup truck when he had made the mistake of parking in the lot where the event was held. He argued many of those attracted to CFM’s hot meals were mentally ill, drug addicts, or miscreants who caused trouble hours after CFM had struck its tents and left for the evening. “When the trouble begins, they’re already long gone,” he said. The woman due to relieve him wasn’t present, but he alleged her take on the issue was decidedly more negative than his own. His statements contrasted dramatically with what Ben had claimed was a vote of confidence from the business only minutes earlier.
The Harlequin Theater staff were polite…too polite. Their theater company was putting on a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V for the entire month. But they would not comment on how they felt CFM’s event had affected them in the absence of the owner. When asked if they wanted to remain neutral, they opined, “Yes, like Switzerland!”
It occurred to yours truly, in hindsight, that many businesses were reluctant to openly criticize the feeding of the poor for philosophical as well as political and practical reasons, though the owner of the adjacent quilting supply shop had no such reservations. Some business owners who have openly opposed low barrier shelters for the homeless in their neighborhood have repeatedly had their business vandalized in the wee hours. There is a reluctance to be seen/heard, especially on the record, criticizing efforts to aid or assist the poor/homeless. At the same time, there has been considerable vilification of the poor/homeless. They are genuinely loathed by those business owners who see them as an impediment to having a profitable operation or an obstacle to their customers. Moreover, they are blamed for the vandalism and trash in the City’s streets.
The trash appears to be spread about as much by patrons as the poor/homeless given crowds of similar size. What isn’t clear is who is responsible for the vandalism. What is clear is in those public forums where such acts are discussed, it isn’t the homeless who brag about or encourage it. It is the more radical or criminally inclined self described anarchists in the community. The poor/homeless, fully engaged in the daily struggle to survive, appear to have been given a bum rap for the predilections of their life style anarchist would-be mentors.
The depths of perfidy vs. necessity came up again during a dinner meal at the Thai food restaurant just down the street a block or two from the artesian on 4th Ave. The waitress volunteered, when asked, that she believed many of those who took advantage of CFM’s largess weren’t ‘homeless’, or even poor, at all. She felt they were ‘lifestyle homeless’ who simply liked to hangout and had become a blight on the community.
The issue, ultimately, appears to turn on the degree of tolerance Olympia’s residents are willing to afford the less fortunate, and to some extent, the not so less fortunate. Many Olympia residents are willing to be generous, but many are not willing to risk their own safety to do so. The aggressive behavior of a few street denizens has tarred the lot in the minds of some City residents. But CFM’s “sins” are a red herring. There was not a little trash strewn about the City far from where the poor and hungry were being fed. There was even the occasional hypodermic needle on the pavement.
The stretch of 4th Avenue near the artesian has become a tenderloin district after dark. A sense of entitlement has pervaded street elements there to the point of consistently challenging a photojournalist walking through with a camera. A thriving black market in contraband and services can be seen operating there. It is almost the diametrical opposite of the ambiance surrounding the faith based ministries outreach to the poor, hungry, and homeless through their hot meals event. Once, not so long ago, another charitable effort was successfully discouraged/prohibited by the City from providing food/meals to the poor: Bread & Roses.