If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter
On Wednesday, Oct 12th, Richard DeBolt hosted a local radio program called "Let's Talk About It" with his guest Commissioner Sean Swope. It's your typical small town call-in radio show that features the full spectrum of what Lewis County has to offer.
I've linked directly to the audio above for your listening pleasure. It covers a range of hot button topics such as climate change, Mariners, manure, requirements for local judges, and so on. I have no desire to comment on the entirety of the show but there are some choice topics I would like to address.
It all starts pretty normal, taking a few callers, but around the 10:13 mark Richard DeBolt ham-fistedly re-directs the program to the topic of homelessness. A subject of which Sean Swope has strong opinions on.
For ease of readability, I'll break this into sections with a rough timestamp, title, a following quote from the program, and then my thoughts on each section.
"And I heard, it was in a conversation, to where a person literally said, Mexico is thanking America for everyone that gives out needles, because they help their business and for people to be addicted and strung out on drugs." - Sean Swope
Around the 12 minute mark, the topic of Fentanyl comes up and DeBolt and Swope discuss what it is, why it's in drugs, and Swope shares a personal story of a person he knows who is currently in drug court. The story is a common one and terribly sad.
Immediately after that though, Swope shares the quote above regarding Mexico and needles. And I just... like... I have so many questions.
I know I'm laying on a lot of snark here, but this is an elected official dropping the most ridiculous third-hand hearsay about something I'm near certain never happened. Does Sean Swope believe that needle exchanges are the cause of millions of drugs driving down I-5? Are not Swope's words more of an indictment of law enforcement given this is in their jurisdiction and authority?
"Well, we are, the county has got a place where we are putting a permanent night by night shelter. We are working with different organizations like the Salvation Army to be able to have the night by night shelter until we get our permanent location. We work with the Housing Resource Center and we are also working with Cascade Mental Health to provide mental health services. There is a plan. It's not that we're just going to do a sweep as some people have said and we're not making being homeless illegal. That is also a misrepresentation. What we do want to do is we want to provide services to people that want help. We don't want people overdosing on drugs. We want to put them in a safe environment. That's why we have a night by night shelter. We have 50 beds there. And it is never more than halfway full up to this point. And we have capacity to go up to 70 beds. So we have room and we have great organizations that we are partnering with to be able to help people that want help." - Sean Swope
A caller states that he doesn't feel the county has a plan and Swope responds with the above statement.
First, as has been pointed out by others, a night-by-night shelter is not, by definition, housing. While I'm encouraged that the county is lining up so many services, the very obvious fact remains that the county cannot at this time, address the housing issue.
"It's not that we're just going to do a sweep as some people have said" - I feel like Swope might be playing with semantics a bit here. His ordinance, is in fact going to be doing sweeps, and sure, it does other things as well. But the criticism he's trying to semantically remove himself from is that he's displacing a population, with no housing available to them. Just a night by night shelter which I've discussed in a previous article.
"We want to put them in a safe environment" - By force. They could take steps to make the encampment more safe while trying to provide services to get them housed. It would be cheaper and less disruptive to the population they're trying to help. Swope assumes that, because of force, all of the unhoused will comply. What happens if some of this population doesn't? I address that issue here as well.
"And there's a lot of things that Cole said in there that are not true. For one, the county did meet with him. I went and met with one of our prosecuting attorneys and we talked about things." - Sean Swope
Swope's entire defense of his statement rests on one simple word: "things". The word "things" is nondescript. Vague. They could have talked about sports. Or the weather.
The Chronicle, our local newspaper, did an article on Meckle and his response to finding out about Swope's encampment prohibition on county lands. The issue at play here is this excerpt:
When Swope first raised the topic in the summer, he suggested having meetings with the contracted service providers, such as Gather and the Salvation Army. Meckle said staff anticipated these meetings happening and worked to prepare for them, but the day never came.
Now, Swope is correct in that a meeting took place. But that meeting was at the request of Meckle, not Swope. Meckle had been trying for weeks to discuss "Gather's scope of work as related to housing services" but he received no response until Aug 17th. Finally a meeting was scheduled. Below are some receipts on Meckle's attempt to establish a meeting. Note that in one email he specifically states: "I am reaching out again guessing that somehow my previous emails have not made it to you."
If only we could find out what they talked about! Well, that's easy. All you have to do is ask Cole Meckle. So I did. He provided me with these screenshots and given they are sent to Sean Swope's county email, they should be available by a public disclosure request to the county.
Meckle thought the meeting was going to be about what he had requested: "Gather's scope of work as related to housing services." The bulk of the meeting was actually Swope asking what services Gather provides, where does Gather get its funding, and so on. Meckle provided all the information that was asked of him. When I asked Meckle if Swope discussed the proposed ordinance or housing with him, he simply responded, "No."
So here we are with a he-said, he-said situation. I suppose people could line up on whatever side they trust the most, but I think the best option would be to ask the third person in the room, the employee from the prosecutor's office. I don't have the person's contact info but if they wanted to provide their take on the meeting, that would great.
"When we used the word accountability with Cole Meckle and Gather Church, they canceled their contracts, which I would push people to ask questions. How does Cole Meckle have 40 employees? When the largest church in Lewis County might have 15 employees. He's getting funding from other areas in other places like the healthcare authority from UW, state money that's coming in to bring that issue down south." - Sean Swope
I'm going to address Swope's concept of "accountability" in a later article, but suffice it to say, what Sean Swope calls accountability is definitely up for debate (and will be debated).
Gather Church focuses on many things but two core commitments we have are the following:
Swope's proposals don't meet these core values. Therefore, we decided to end our contracts.
Now on to the topic of the church with 40 employees. Gather church is just that: a church. But where we may differ from other churches is our concept of service. Many churches, including Gather, have a weekly service where the Word is preached and people "gather" together to worship (hence the name). We also have bible studies, prayer groups, and more.
These are critical functions to any church. But where other churches may categorize themselves according to how many people attend or how many members are on their rosters, Gather church does not. We do not categorize ourselves by how many we serve "inside" our church. We embrace a broader definition of service that considers how we are also serving those "outside" our church. Even then, our metric isn't some count or tabulation of people helped. Our metric is both more simple and more complicated: are we loving God and loving our neighbor?
It's in this answer, of what it means to love our neighbor, that Gather provides the following services:
This list barely scratches the surface. Some of the programs we've had since the beginning. Others have slowly grown and are supported by other churches or non-profit organizations. Others, specifically those geared to toward medical services, are supported by grant money, of which there are several sources. There's so much more that goes on that would be difficult to capture here. Swope is free to complain about a church having 40 employees. But it might be more honest to compare Gather with other churches that provide the same services. If you can find them.
"But apparently that's the issue right there is we've spent, we're spending so much money on this issue and it's not getting better. It's getting worse. And that's, it's not that we've spent 22 million dollars or in the process spending to 22 million dollars. You would think at that point it would get better. But right now it's getting worse. And that's why we need to address this." - Sean Swope
I've touched on this in my previous article so I won't retread that discussion. Suffice it to say, he's misrepresenting these numbers. He's been notified of this. He continues to do it. At this point, it's just willful ignorance or worse, malice.
This whole show was weird. I'm disappointed in how this very important conversation is playing out. There's always more to say than I have time to get out but I'm going to leave this post with a very personal story.
In 2012, I was in the very early stages of a major depressive episode in my life. I didn't know that this episode was depression until later when I better understood how depression manifests. My wife was 7 months pregnant with our 4th child. I seemingly woke up one day having lost myself. My faith, my relationships, my passion was just gone. It wasn't the feeling of sadness. It was nothing. Having no feelings at all.
In this process, a mutual friend introduced me to Cole Meckle. He was a pastor of a local church. They were known as the "homeless church". At that time, they only had the small chapel and the cafe, which was behind the chapel. I got in contact with Cole and he invited me to talk about my issues.
One of my earliest memories of Cole was when I went to discuss with him the difficulty I was having. He had invited me to one of Gather's meal services where anyone who wanted could come to the cafe, get a free hot meal, and sit in a warm, dry place and just talk with others.
I walked into to a room that was packed wall to wall with homeless people. Volunteers were bustling around bringing meals and drinks to everyone. The smell of the room was such an odd mixture of the delicious food and the warm closeness of people so crowded together. All combined together smelling like hot soup and wet dog, with just a hint of piss. It was disturbing and beautiful. It was humanity as I had never experienced it.
It was in this place that I found Cole Meckle, seated at the end of a table from a man in a wheel chair who had limited use of his arms. Cole sat there with a bowl in one hand and a spoon in the other. He was feeding the man one spoonful at a time. I don't know how to describe what was going on in me upon seeing that. All I can say, is that moment was the beginning of a return to my self.
There's a lot of people who would say they could do the same. Perhaps not many, however, that have actually done it.Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash