Tuesday, December 20, 2016

State Closes Three Downtown Olympia Restrooms

Above: The Washington State Department of Enterprise Services has temporarily closed, day and night, three downtown Olympia area restrooms. Wheelchair accessible portables have been set up near each restroom. This portable restroom near Heritage Park is located near Olympia Supply on Water Street and Columbia Street.

By Janine Gates

Calling it a night of mourning, Just Housing activists and community members gathered at the now closed Heritage Park restrooms on Water Street Tuesday evening.

According to a press release issued on Tuesday afternoon by the state Department of Enterprise Services, restrooms at three Capitol Campus locations at Heritage and Marathon parks and the Interpretive Center, are now closed day and night.

The temporary closure follows three days of incidents at the Heritage Park restroom on Water Street in downtown Olympia.

“Enterprise Services is closing the restrooms because the actions taking place over the last three days create significant risk to the community and those responsible for the care and custody of the Capitol Campus, and do not support a productive path to come together and resolve the issue.

“Enterprise Services staff had hoped to focus on constructive dialogue at the park Monday evening and through the week, and to achieve a two-week pause in the protests to have community meetings and seek solutions.

“The bathrooms will be closed temporarily until Enterprise Services can productively pursue a collaborative solution with community groups, the City of Olympia and others,” says the release.

Portable bathrooms compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as hand washing stations have been placed at Heritage Park near Seventh and Columbia streets and at Marathon Park adjacent to the regular bathroom.

Above: Renata Rollins lights a candle at a gathering Tuesday night in front of the now closed Heritage Park restrooms in downtown Olympia.

A quiet group of about 35 community members, including children, met Tuesday night outside the closed restrooms to discuss the week’s actions, lessons learned, and the decision by the state to close the restrooms.

The group was somber as they listened to Renata Rollins and Tye Grundel each explain why they co-founded the Just Housing group last spring. As community outreach workers, they became discouraged while turning people away from needed services because they were not available.

The lack of options weighed heavily on them and they decided to explore other options, speak the truth, build relationships, and take direct action.

Gundel said Just Housing activists underestimated how state and city law enforcement would respond to what was intended to be a one night, symbolic action that would demonstrate what a 24 hour access bathroom would look like.

She participated in civil disobedience and was one of the four arrested Monday night. She said she didn’t originally expect to do that, but gained strength to do so by thinking of the personal conversations she has had in the last three years helping people work through the social service network. She felt that what she was doing was right.

“…Those people have changed my life, and the way I see the world….it was their words and their courage that I was thinking about that gave me a lot of strength, and gave me a lot of peace and a lot of certainty about what we’re doing here. I never doubted that ….”

She said she was saddened by the state’s decision to shut down the state controlled restrooms in the city as a result of their actions.

“This has never been just about bathrooms for the last three days. It’s about basic dignity, this is about humanity, love, for people that have been shown day in and day out and told day in and day out that they don’t deserve that.…and to show them that there are those in the community who are willing to stand by those who have been pushed to the outside of our society….”

Gundel said that the closure of the restrooms punishes the people they most wanted to help.

“…A lot of us are really torn about what we could have done differently to make sure that didn’t happen…. Maybe some things could have been done differently....It’s a really big burden to bear, but that’s on them...they made that choice….We’re here to contrast that….punishment with community and love and coming together….we’re going to come together stronger and I’ve never had more faith in a community to be creative and come up with responses to help people when they need to the most. I’m excited to see what we’ll do….”

To hear all the speakers Tuesday evening, including Rabbah Rona Matlow,  go to http://justhousingoly.tumblr.com/post/154751419786/122016-just-housing-night-of-mourning-for-closed

Matlow said she visited with Tony Aitken, Enterprise Services program manager for state capitol visitor services, to see what she could do to help on Monday morning.

A retired Lieutenant Commander with 22 years in the Navy, Matlow wore a coat with military medals on her lapel. Matlow, now a transgender woman and Jewish pastoral counselor, offers veteran and LGBTQ+ support.

She said she wears her medals to show that even mainstream people are concerned about significant social issues. She is hoping to organize an interjurisdictional, interfaith homelessness task force with state, city and local community leaders.

Just Housing activist Jeff Thomas listed recent successes with homelessness issues and said he spoke with City of Olympia city manager Steve Hall a few weeks ago, who had proposed to the state that the city rent out the Heritage Park restrooms.

According to Thomas, the state said the city would have to pay for an all-night State Patrol agent, making the idea a “no-go.”  Still, Thomas said he is cautiously optimistic.

“We are going to get bathrooms soon, one way or another.”

Above: The portable at Marathon Park on Deschutes Parkway is near the closed restrooms.