Gonzaga students' group seeks to end homelessness
By Lillian Piel
Service Gonzaga sociology major Michael Larson did with people experiencing homelessness led him to ask what it would take to end homelessness in Spokane entirely. Last May, he began asking people if ending homelessness was something that could be figured out. He received varying answers and opinions.
"I have a deep desire for people to have more compassion for the least of these in our city, because right now we are not having that," Michael said.
He decided to learn what policies and root causes were behind increases in homelessness in Washington and across the nation. He found poverty, domestic violence, rent increases and lack of affordable housing are primary factors.
In September 2020, Michael asked a few friends if they wanted to be involved with creating a documentary about the issue and help lead a march on April 24 to push for policy change in Spokane.
What started out as a team of four or five people grew into a student-led team of 19 students, who make up the organization called Humanizing Spokane.
One is special education major Leila Lewis, who joined the public relations team after Michael made a presentation in one of her classes. She helped organize the march that drew several hundred people to the Lilac Bowl at Riverfront Park calling for tenant protections, ending single-family zoning and building public facilities.
Michael hopes the march will stir momentum to change policies.
"Humanizing Spokane is a student-led group that believes in the inherent dignity and worth of all people, and believes that everyone deserves safe and stable housing," said Michael.
The goals are to humanize those experiencing homelessness by telling their stories through a documentary he directed, and to change policies in Spokane to decrease homelessness over time and build more affordable housing.
"Each person has infinite worth, and those who live on the streets and experience homelessness are treated terribly," Michael said.
"How do we tell people's stories to inspire people to care and have compassion toward people who are experiencing homelessness and hopefully do that to break down some biases and stereotypes by telling people's stories?" Michael asked.
The documentary, "Humanizing Spokane," is available to view at humanizingspokane.com and at Youtube.
The video, which took two months to plan and two months to produce, highlights stories of four people who are currently homeless or experienced it in the past.
It goes in depth into their lives to humanize them and raise awareness of how every person's story is different, Michael said.
The video also features experts on homelessness and its root causes, including Spokane City Council members, a member of the Spokane's Planning Commission and the executive director of Transitions. It ends with a call to action.
The documentary has had more than 90,000 views on Facebook and about 8,000 views on YouTube.
While some people disagree with Humanizing Spokane, Michael believes they have achieved the goal of humanizing homeless people in Spokane with the documentary.
"These are just people like you and I. We label them 'homeless as people" and think they are so different than us, but they're really not," he said.
Leila, who grew up Catholic in Auburn, researched what issues to push the city on to see change.
The march made three demands to the City Council:
• The first demand is to increase tenant protections by adopting and enacting Washington State Senate Bill 5160, which will protect renters' rights. It will help more people stay in their homes, Leila said.
• The second demand is to eliminate single family zoning across Spokane to increase affordable housing options. Most of the city is zoned for single family and single unit housing, which is a historically classist and racist zoning law that prevents building affordable housing, she said.
• The third demand is for the city to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to construct new public facilities that will meet basic needs of the homeless population. This demand comes from listening sessions held with unhoused individuals, who voiced the need for access to public facilities, she said.
"When advocating for oppressed people, we can't forget to stand with them or to create those relationships with them. While we're creating relationships and caring for people on an interpersonal level, we can't forget about systems of oppression. They have to come together," Leila said.
While Humanizing Spokane does not have a religious affiliation, Michael, who is from Everett, said his motivation is driven by his beliefs as a nondenominational Christian. He was drawn to Gonzaga by its Jesuit social justice emphasis. He believes in Jesus' example of leading for love, compassion and justice, he said, and explained that he believes "the way we treat the poor in society is how we treat God."
Fear, stereotypes and biases prevent people from loving those who are experiencing homelessness, and they are often criminalized, Michael said.
Seeing this as part of an endless cycle of lacking compassion, he hopes people will gain more compassion and realize they can volunteer, do something small to participate or participate in long-term activism.
In his time at Gonzaga, Michael learned what works and what doesn't in activism to mobilize people. Trying different projects over recent years, bringing people together and sometimes failing has influenced his thinking and understanding of how to create change.
With Humanizing Spokane, he is able to apply his skills to try to change policies to create long-term change.
"What I learn from this project will inform the next one, and hopefully we only become more effective in terms of the policy changes and long-term change that can happen," said Michael, who will work next year as a videographer in Bellingham.
Leila's work with Humanizing Spokane taught her about the complexity of social issues, which are not as easy to solve as they may seem. She found it rewarding to combine efforts with people already doing this work and see new people become involved.
With most of the 19 members graduating, Leila will encourage other students to pick up the work and carry it on. She is staying in Spokane, considering work in early childhood education or housing.
"This is something we are all responsible for," she said. "Collective traumatic experiences create cultures. They might create cultures of fear, or they might create cultures of justice. I'm involved with this because I really, really hope that it can be a culture of justice and a culture of equity."
For Michael, a key takeaway from Humanizing Spokane is the importance of relationships in activism.
"Activism isn't so much about what we know, it is about who we know and who we can bring together and organize," he said.
He hopes Humanizing Spokane can set an example of the compassion and other qualities needed to serve the homeless population.
"We can all play a role, and I want people to know that they also play a role in the responsibility for meeting the needs of homeless vulnerable members of our society," Michael said.
For information, email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit humanizingspokane.com.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, May, 2021