Camp Quixote Retrospective
Author: Rob Richards
In the fall of 2006, I had been on staff at Bread & Roses (B&R) in Olympia for about three years. Founded in the early 80s, B&R was a Catholic Worker house inspired by Dorothy Day's work with the poor and marginalized in our society.
In Olympia, the organization had grown to encompass the original house (on 8th Ave between Boundary and Central), used as a community gathering place and where the staff lived. We all got room and board and a small monthly stipend for our work. Next door to the staff house sat a duplex that housed our women's shelter, where up to a dozen women stayed, working with an advocate, until they were ready to move on. We also had an advocacy center in Downtown Olympia where folks could drop in, take a load off, and work with an advocate. But, above all else, we wanted it to be a safe harbor. A place you could shed the world's pressures and just be you. And when you were ready for it, help was available.
By the summer of 2006, I had been at Bread and Roses for three years, witnessing the direct impact of homelessness on the lives of people I had come to care for and love very much. They were tormented daily by predators, police, and policies – all compounding to make it nearly impossible to recover from the cycle of homelessness. A friend compared it to being stopped on the side of the freeway, and every time you tried to pull out into the lane, a car would come whipping by, and you'd have to stop again.
Resources were scarce and getting scarcer.
Our city council at the time took a more conservative, "pro-business" approach. Instead of helping people, they passed measures that criminalized their existence and freedom to live in our community. This trend culminated in the Summer of 2006 as a Pedestrian Interference Ordinance (PIO) that would strip people's right to gather in public spaces – namely, our sidewalks – during certain times of the day. The PIO followed other ordinances that targeted camping in public places, car-camping, and panhandling.
I remember how powerless I felt. I was tired of watching my friends die for no reason. People were sad, scared, and angry and didn't know what to do. They had become used to just taking their lumps without a fight. Many had become resigned to being relegated to second-class status.
Tim, a friend who had been houseless off and on most of his life, was angry and wanted to do something about it. A group of us had movie nights where we would watch political or historical documentaries and films and then discuss how they applied to what was happening locally. During one of these, the conversation began about political action in response to the ordinances. That night we laid the groundwork for what would become known as Camp Quixote – I remember coming up with the name as a show of solidarity to a group in Paris involved in a similar tent city protest. We also chose a name for our newly conceived group, the Poor People's Union (PPU), which would serve as the camp's organizing body.
The first meeting of the PPU was on a Saturday afternoon at the Bread & Roses Advocacy Center. It drew (probably because of the free pizza) about two dozen people. We laid out our vision to create a tent city where folks could live with the safety and security that a tight-knit community provides and work toward a permanent location. They would be free of the pressures of the social service system and able to recover at their own pace.
We didn't know how people would respond going into that first meeting, and I don't think any of us were quite expecting the response we got.
People were excited. Their eyes were alive, and you could feel their hope. Solidarity is an overused word, but that's what they felt. They didn't feel alone for the first time in a long time.
We officially formed the PPU. We made membership cards and pins to wear. There was a Street Contingent, the folks who were living rough, and a Support Contingent of housed allies. The Street Contingent voted for dues at $1 for a lifetime membership. The Support Contingent created a scholarship fund for anyone who couldn't pay.
We started having general meetings every Saturday where we would plan every aspect of the camp. We formed subcommittees to write camp rules and regulations, plan camp security, site selection, kitchen crew, communications, and camp design. We elected leaders for each committee, and they would give progress reports at the general meetings on Saturdays. Only members of the Street Contingent – folks who would be camp residents – could hold leadership roles. The rest of us took on responsibilities in support of and directed by the leadership team.
I was a member of the site selection committee. After vetting multiple options, we determined that the ideal location would be a parking lot downtown owned by the City of Olympia. We had various reasons why we ended up where we did. Primarily, our fight was with the City of Olympia, so locating on city property made more sense than private or non-city land. The lot was also in the Downtown core, on one of the busiest streets in the county, providing a central location and tons of visibility. Thousands of people would drive by every day that otherwise might not have known the camp existed. Many got curious and pulled off to see what was up. Many of those people came back with supplies or to volunteer. That was huge for the campers' morale, and the community's support would prove critical later.
The group decided that February 1st, 2007, would be the move-in day. It was also the day the Pedestrian Interference Ordinance was to take effect.
That gave us only a couple of months to finish our preparations. Supplies needed organizing and materials gathered. So we spent those final two months busily staging materials and methodically crafting the action plan for move-in day.
When February 1st rolled around, we set our plan in motion. The first step was to set up the tents. We laid out pallets and tarps, then erected and waterproofed tents. Simultaneously, we ordered port-a-potties, and the kitchen crew set up the mess tent and started prepping dinner. By the end of that first day, we had over twenty tents set up, and we all were able to have a makeshift meal together.
Day two brought more people and more tents to set up, and the folks in charge of camp layout took on the newcomers and gave them jobs in the camp. Positions included a rotating 24-hour security detail, kitchen crew, camp maintenance, and neighborhood clean-up.
Neighborhood clean-up was essential to the campers, who wanted to be good neighbors. So they devised a daily litter patrol to tidy up the blocks surrounding the camp.
On day three, materials arrived for the Common House, to be erected in the center of the ring of tents. It would serve as our gathering place for camp meetings, meals, and nightly entertainment.
The construction team built out the frames for the walls and roof, and just like an old-fashioned barn raising, we all helped pull them upright and hold them in place while others hammered everything together.
While this was happening, the kitchen crew was prepping a colossal chicken dinner, using chicken donated by Top Foods and rice and veggies donated by community members.
That night was one of the most joyous nights I've ever experienced. We ate, danced, laughed, and enjoyed each other's company inside this great hall we built together. I had never felt more alive than I did that night.
Seeing those faces that for years had been weighed down by the pressure of life on the streets, the constant fear, stress, humiliation – all of that lifted away. Instead, you could see their inner beauty, what was inside them, and what can be drawn out of a person if we choose to bring people in rather than push them away.
The response to our presence from the surrounding community was, for the most part, positive. For example, Ben Moore's, a restaurant located on the same block, brought us a huge pot of hot soup every day – and a "We heart Camp Quixote" sign hung in their window for years after.
Donations from community members - Blankets, tarps, sleeping bags, warm clothes, food, and more were coming in steadily. Parents would bring their children down to visit, and we would have conversations with them about homelessness and why the camp was there.
On the other hand, the City of Olympia was not as supportive. They informed us that we were trespassing and would face arrest if we didn't pack up and move out immediately.
We quickly formed an intelligence-gathering committee to monitor radios and scout out locations where police stage for raids. We wanted the earliest possible warning to get people out who couldn't risk arrest or would be at risk if the police used force, especially tear gas.
The City Council then instructed staff to notify us that we were trespassing and must vacate the property, or they would send in OPD to disperse the campers.
The local paper, The Olympian, was equally unsupportive. They ran an editorial urging the City to immediately break up the camp and arrest all of us.
We knew that the threat of a police raid weighed heavily on folks, so we started making a plan to move the camp. We began exploring many options, including moving to a different lot downtown or finding a space hidden in the woods. I will note, however, that the campers were unanimous that giving up was not an option.
One member of our extended support network had the idea of asking a church, specifically their church, the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation (OUUC), to allow the camp to move to their property. The OUUC board was having a meeting the following evening, and our supporters volunteered to attend and request sanctuary on their property.
When the news came that the OUUC Board had decided to grant us refuge, it hit the camp and spread fast. People were ecstatic, inspired, and relieved – this was a victory.
We notified the media and the city and began packing for an early morning move.
The following morning at 5 am, with everyone except the security detail sound asleep, the Olympia Police Department, with the then City Manager watching from a safe distance, descended upon the camp in a loud, showy display. They had tipped off The Olympian newspaper, so a reporter and photographer were there to ensure the city got its photo op.
The pre-dawn raid shocked the campers, some of whom fled and abandoned their belongings. Those who stayed were shaken and scared from the violent, unexpected, and abrupt awakening. A few people who fled weren't seen for weeks because they feared that OPD was after them.
As morning broke and the shock subsided, our volunteers arrived to help us move and set up the new camp.
A couple of weeks later, the congregants at OUUC voted to allow the camp to stay for an extended period. After that, work began to create structure and formalize the relationship.
The City of Olympia and Thurston County Health Department regulated health and safety at the camp. The Panza Board was then formed to support the camp in its journey. To guide, not to govern it, an idea that has held throughout the years.
A few years later, as a member of the Olympia Planning Commission, the camp came back into my life. The question before the commission was whether or not to allow a permanent homeless encampment inside the City of Olympia. Regulations at the time only allowed for a temporary camp that had to move every 90 days. I convinced my fellow commissioners to vote in favor of my motion to recommend the change to our City Council. I was proud to be part of this next step for the camp. Finally, the vision we set all those years ago, of having a permanent site with little houses, was becoming a reality.
Eventually, at the groundbreaking ceremony, I stood on the empty lot that would be Quixote Village. I watched my dear friend Kevin, who had overcome so much, plunge his golden shovel into the rocky soil, breaking ground and initiating the final phase of the Camp's evolution. I could not have been prouder. I fought tears as I relived in my mind those nine days in February of '07.
A few more years later, as a congressional staffer in the office of Congressman Derek Kilmer, I was approached by Beth Doglio, a board member of Quixote Villages, for help securing some housing vouchers for their veteran's village in Mason County. I worked with staff to help them make connections, and they successfully got those vouchers that were critical to the project.
I will never forget those beautiful people of Camp Quixote – so often shoved aside and kicked around – who decided they'd had enough one day. They showed bravery and strength beyond words—vigor and resilience in the face of turmoil and constant threats. But more than anything, they taught me the power of grace. That you should show more grace than people deserve because you change the world by being better, not by slamming doors in peoples' faces.
The camp succeeded and is living its dream today because we allowed the campers to lead us. The Quixote Village model is spreading because there's no stopping love.
That I got to play a small part in the camp's formation and its continued success is something I will never forget, and I will always carry the lessons I learned from this experience.
Love is an action. Act.