Olympia, Washington is nestled in the North West corner of the U.S. You’ve probably heard about Nirvana, legal marijuana, our rainy seasons, and suicide rate, but have you heard about our totally radical street outreach program EGYHOP?
If you've spent any time in downtown Olympia, you’ll know there's a large community of people that hang out on the street all year round by our famous Artesian Well. All kinds of people come to chill here, it's like the wall ball court in elementary school.
Many people complain about the large population of street kids, and that they don't feel safe filling up their water jugs at the well anymore. These are usually the same people that refer to downtown as a dirty needle-ridden hellhole. Meanwhile, others invest their time in responding to the core issues of the downtown area to make it a more habitable place for all. There are businesses that come together to form cleaning parties on the weekends. I’ve seen a couple guys handing out PBJs at the well (quality PBJs btw, no wonder bread-type shit!). I’ve met a man who collects coins downtown and puts them in all the expired meters (my hero!). There's another guy who carries around a broom and is constantly sweeping (he accepts tips!). A lot of people are getting very creative to help out where the City of Olympia can't or won't.
Another radical service in downtown Olympia is EGYHOP – a volunteer-based anarchist street outreach program that inhabits downtown Olympia seven nights a week, 365 days a year. I interviewed Meg Martin, volunteer for EGYHOP for six years, in hopes of learning more about de-centralized organizing, the state of homelessness in downtown, and ways you can contribute to their organization.
So Meg, give us the scoop: what’s EGYHOP all about?
EGYHOP is an acronym for The Emma Goldman Youth and Homeless Outreach Project. Emma Goldman was this awesome anarchist nurse who did very cool shit. The group started about 16 years ago by an amazing person named Long Hair Dave. He started EGYHOP as an emergency triage outreach group that got people through the night so they could get to their services in the morning. He provided this service on bicycle, and he was out on the streets pretty much all the time. At some point it got to be too much for him so a group of punk/anarchist people started helping out. Eventually he took a break from the group. This is when EGYHOP became the all-volunteer run, non-hierarchical, street-outreach program it is today.
Today, EGYHOP involves two bikes with big trailers receiving and distributing donations of blankets, sleeping bags, warm clothes, tents, camping gear, tarps, socks, gloves, hand warmers, jackets, clean clothes, and food donations from some of the local businesses downtown. We usually have coffee, cold pizza, and pastries on the bikes.
Another issue Dave recognized on the streets was the need for clean needles, or a syringe exchange. That’s something we do as well – we're a mobile syringe exchange. One of the carts with hygiene and first aid supplies (including vitamins, ibuprofen, bandages, and so on) also has a large sharps container for the collection of dirty needles. We also carry a shoulder bag of clean injection supplies that we exchange on the street.
How long have you been volunteering with EGYHOP?
I've had a regular weekly or bi-weekly shift for six years. Every night, teams of two do a weekly shift and it’s your responsibility to get your shift covered if you can’t make it.
EGYHOP started with one person (Long Hair Dave) and then it turned into a more decentralized organization. How do you operate and make decisions as a group?
Dave was the person who started it but there were others involved early on. He’s an anarchist so decentralized organising has always been a core value. Over the years, various chapters of different people have been involved.
At one point the group decided they wanted to formalize into a 501c3 and so they went through all the paperwork to do that, including forming a board of directors. One of the volunteers at the time had two small children, and they became the president and vice president of EGYHOP. The primary function of the 501c3 status was to be able to give people tax deductions for their donations.
Since I joined we've lost our 501c3 status because nobody was keeping up with it – the person who was most committed to that left the group. That's a good example of how the group operates. If there's something that needs to be done and there's someone that’s excited to do it then they have complete autonomy to do it. There's still checks and balances, every decision is made through consensus of whoever's in the group at the time. A lot of our work is based on trust. Nobody’s hoarding power or information. I mean, some people have been with the group longer and therefore have more experience and information, but everyone has equal say in what goes down.
I'm also a social worker so I walk this weird line of radical social organizing and very non-radical social service organization. In the social service world we talk a lot about creating a sense of ownership within an organization. For example, “We want to cultivate a sense of responsibility in our clients.” At the overnight shelters, for example, we want people to feel like they have a sense of ownership over the shelter so that they give a shit and take care of it. If you make them believe they matter and are a part of it, they'll behave better. Which is true, of course – whenever we give a shit about something we take care of it. But it's masked in this weird illusory way because the social worker always has the power to give you a bad review and kick you out of the program. The social workers have the ultimate authority.
What's cool about EGYHOP is that this kind of authority doesn't exist. So it goes beyond an individual sense of ownership to ownership of the whole group. That’s the only reason I believe it has existed this long.
What's the biggest challenge you face as an organization?
We face lots of challenges: keeping up on the winter stockpile of blankets and camping gear, for example.
In the past year, people throughout the city of Olympia had a collective wig-out about the state of downtown. From neighborhood residents and city officials, to the police, school groups, and business owners – everyone seemingly lost it, saying downtown is too dangerous to bring your kids, run a successful business, or fill apartments with tenants. They said things like, “I've lived here my whole life and I’ve really seen it go downhill.”
In tandem with starting a new housing project downtown, the city began targeting EGYHOP for the needle exchange portion of what we do.
Part of the freak out came from people saying that there are too many needles downtown, after which word got out that EGYHOP doesn't do needle exchanges one-for-one (meaning you only get the number of needles you deposit in the dirty sharps container). People took that to mean that we are wildly distributing needles. The city was lobbied to institute drug-free zones. Well, turns out they made ALL of downtown a drug-free zone, which means that if you get caught doing drugs in downtown, you face increased penalties. They’re also allowed to use all kinds of tactics to catch people in the act.
The chief of police called a meeting with EGYHOP and essentially said: “We want you to know that things are changing downtown. We're gonna be having undercover raids and more bike and foot patrol. We don't think the mission of EGYHOP can be fulfilled in downtown because it's not congruent with the mission of the OPD.” We were like, okay, you’re saying that you're going to monitor who's using the needle exchange and target them? Of course he denied that, saying, “Oh no no no! Course not! More like, you might be putting the people that use your needle exchange at higher risk by remaining in the downtown core.” So that they would target needle exchange beneficiaries was exactly what he was saying.
After that, I left town to go on tour for a month. When I came back and asked about the whereabouts of so-and-so, I often got the same answer: “Jail.” All of them were going in on drug related charges, none of them being dealers, most of them long-time homeless dudes. I feel like that's been our biggest challenge.
Needle exchange is just a portion of what we do. What we actually do – the most important thing we do – is to show up for people downtown and be a familiar face for them to trust. We try to care for people as humans without asking for something in return.
This is non-existent in every other service. There's always at least one intake form you have to fill out, a prayer you have to say to get a blanket, a sermon you have to listen to all the way through before you can get a meal. The challenge with the whole syringe debate is that it made it seem like our focus was the needle exchange but it really isn't.
So you provide the presence of a witness, or a counselor who comes to them, without judgement, only the basic value of respect and care. Do people ever come to the bikes in need of emergency care? What do you do in such situations?
It’s rare. More frequently a fight breaks out and you have to de-escalate that crisis situation. But there have been life/death situations for sure. One time, an EGYHOP rider was heading back after a shift and came across someone who had OD'd in front of a coffee shop. No one was doing anything. They probably thought he was a homeless person sleeping. The rider administered narcan and called 911.
More often, it’s interpersonal things that become an emergency. One of the important things we do is to share information among people. Like, if I'm doing an exchange with someone and they say “two friends went out (unconscious) the other night because of this dope from Portland that’s really strong and laced with fentanyl, let everyone know.” So we can give out extra narcan and warn people. People will also say “Have you seen so and so, we haven't seen her in days and are we’re worried.” We keep an eye on people. They found a body floating in Percival Landing two weeks ago. Things like that are an emergency and create a lot of panic. A good way to describe it is that we’re witnesses.
We’ve done memorial services for people after they died because no one else would.
The only real emergency I ever had was three or four years ago. Somebody had asked for a backpack and I did my best to bring a nice backpack. Well, he wasn't happy with the backpack, he got really mad and was being an asshole to me. “You don't gotta be like that,” I said, “if you don't want the bag you don’t have to take it.” Then he stormed off. He came back later with his old backpack and said “If you're not gonna help me then i'm not gonna help you.” He threw the contents of his backpack at me and the bikes, which was all of his dirty rigs. That felt like an emergency. I yelled at him, picked up the needles and cleaned up the bikes. That was really scary. But it worked out in the end. One of the old-timers (someone who's lived on the streets for awhile), who also volunteers for EGYHOP, came to a show at our house and said to me: “That guy has been trying to find you, he wants to apologize.” One day I ran into him and he said: “I feel really bad that I was so pissed.” So yeah, he apologized and that’s how that ended up working out.
How many beds are available for homeless people in this city, at shelters and so on?
It depends on your situation. If you are a family, such as a single mom or couple with kids, you can go to the family support center shelter and they have 30 beds in a brand new building. If you're a young adult between 18 and 24, you can go to Community Youth Services and they have a 12 bed shelter. They also have a bigger shelter for people under 18 called Haven House. I usually deal with single adults and couples without children. Their options are the Salvation Army and the Drexel house (which is only for men) – that’s it. In the winter months, two catholic churches do a 12-man shelter. The Interfaith Works Emergency Shelter serves women from November to May.
There's a new Interfaith Emergency Shelter opening with 42 beds. I'm actually the shelter program director for that project. I managed the women's emergency shelter all of last year – up until then it had been entirely volunteer-run for 24 years. People open up their churches to let people sleep in them, but over the years the challenges of homeless people have become more complex and the churchgoers don't know how to deal with them. So we've lost a lot of churches over the years, which is why we're moving to this model of paid staff rather than volunteers.
EGYHOP is donation based. What do you need the most?
Stocking up for the winter is always a big deal. We're always in need of blankets, sleeping bags, warm jackets, rain coats, mens XL clothes. We also need monetary donations, which allows us to buy first aid supplies, vitamins, and tampons.
Since you're so decentralized and don't have an office, how do people donate things?
That’s a really good question! laughs. When I came home the other day there was literally just a bag on my front porch, that’s kind of how it works. But, you can contact us through our website
If you're interested in making a donation or volunteering for EGYHOP you can find out more on their website.