Two Olympia women serve as role models for civil debate about homeless camps

Wonders never cease: There was a recent outbreak of reason on Facebook. It included civil, compassionate disagreement and debate. And it was about that most contentious of all local issues, homelessness.

The Facebook exchange, part of an ongoing dialogue between two local women, Whitney Bowerman and Candace Mercer, was sparked by a passionate article Mercer wrote on a website called Medium.

Mercer is a writer who lives in the house that will be closest to the soon-to-be-built shelter and permanent supportive housing on Martin Way, in a neighborhood that has had a history of troubles with some residents of nearby homeless camps. Bowerman is an active volunteer who, among other things, cooks meals for people at the Interfaith Works emergency shelter.

Mercer’s Medium article begins with this trenchant observation:

“Our regional government has been treating our problems solely as a homeless issue, but it is far greater. It also involves mental illness, substance abuse and crime. Each piece of the problem needs solutions. ...

“People are upset about changing norms for what is considered permissible behavior in our community. This is the root of our collective distress and the cause for deep moral reflection. In the name of tolerance, we are allowing anti-social behavior to become entrenched.

“Yet we still have a moral obligation to care for people, even when they are disrespectful and especially when they are ill. No wonder we have so much angst and anger. But to be even tacitly OK with this bad behavior is akin to submitting to an abusive relationship.”

On Facebook, Bowerman, responds:

“I have been thinking a lot about the very immediate homeless crisis in Olympia, in the wake of Candy Mercer’s article, and Tuesday’s (Sept. 10) Olympia City Council meeting where the council was divided on whether or not to clear the Fourth Avenue Bridge camp. I like Candy very much, and although there are things I disagree with about her article, I think she was able to put into words what many community members are feeling, and I think she provided validation that many people needed. Likewise, I think many community members needed to hear Mayor Cheryl Selby’s ‘no’ vote to keeping the camp open; they needed to feel that someone on the council heard and supported them.”

But, Bowerman says, “There are a lot of commonalities in what we all want . . . a safe, vibrant community.” Nonetheless, she writes, “These homeless camps will be here for a while. I don’t see another option, given the massive need for housing of all types.”

Her proposed approach, based on her experience in family life, are that rules and boundaries work best when everyone is involved in how they are crafted and enforced. “Likewise, with the homeless camps, why are we not approaching the residents and saying ‘Here are the community rules (example: don’t leave needles lying around). How can we work together to abide by them? What are your ideas?’ When people are empowered and feel agency, amazing things can happen!”

Mercer’s Facebook reply: “This is my next line of thinking. What would DIY healing look like, and how can we achieve peaceful coexistence?”

“We have to have intellectual honesty about the problem or we cannot solve it. To angel-wing the homeless, and make them into downtrodden heroes that you cannot speak ill of is manipulative. People do not like to be shamed, and we should not shame the homeless or the critics. The homeless are the ones that are most affected by bad actors. ...”

“Like I said when we were talking one day, when people are acting their worst is when they need love the most, but at the same time we also have to protect our own hearts to stay healthy. So how to thread that needle?”

What these two smart, articulate women are talking about is what we are all struggling to achieve: a way to uphold community standards of civil, lawful behavior and, at the same time, find effective, compassionate ways to deal with the hard fact that homeless camps will be part of our communities – including Lacey, Tumwater and Thurston County – for many years.

What Mercer and Bowerman show us is that even when we disagree, it is possible to talk to each other in ways that encourage deeper reflection rather than knee-jerk reaction. This is also a vital part of upholding community standards of civil behavior.

Compassion fatigue is real. Criminal behavior is real. Poverty, suffering and disability also are real. And living in today’s world is morally complicated for all of us imperfect, opinionated and reactive human beings.