[Episcopal Diocese of Olympia] Chaplains on the Harbor, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, has for the past year and a half ministered on the streets of Aberdeen, Washington. The Rev. Sarah Monroe launched the ministry with a backpack of sandwiches, walking the streets, visiting homeless camps, and building relationships.
Over the past week, the largest of these semi-permanent camps along the Chehalis River running through town – in the ruins of old mills and pilings – has been issued eviction notices. People have been given until March 31 to clear out, with no options for where they can go next.
“In Aberdeen, if you are really down and out, if you have lost everything, if you get kicked out of your parents’ or your friend’s place, if you need to save money to pay for a hotel during the winter, this is the last place to go,” Monroe explains.
Every year or two, according to residents, the camps are evicted. One year, residents say that the city moved in and burned everything. In the months following, people always come back because, according to Monroe, it is the last place for Aberdeen’s poorest. Up to 70 people camp along this stretch of river. The steep rise in homelessness is a visible sign of increasing desperation, in a town with a 25% poverty rate and a county where 46% of the population access social services to survive.
Monroe, who has been accompanying campers through this time, says, “It is in times like these that the church is called to take a stand. Our brothers and sisters along the river have asked us to stand with them. We are only just beginning, listening to people on the ground, asking the community how we can support them.”
Monroe addressed the Aberdeen city council on March 25, asking that the city either “halt the eviction or at least give people more time. We’re all responsible for each other. We’re all responsible for the common good. And I know that most of us love this place and most of us want to see this town thrive.” Videos of all the speakers at the city council meeting are posted on the group’s Facebook page.
Monroe is also building a broad coalition of churches, social service providers, and people experiencing homelessness to demand that Aberdeen confront its growing poverty crisis.
As in many small towns and cities, efforts to redevelop and attract tourist dollars in declining economies has led to policies that marginalize and criminalize people in poverty or experiencing homelessness. This time, the city hopes that this is a permanent eviction. According to Monroe, there are hopes for a waterfront park instead. Monroe suggested that a better long-term solution would be to prioritize the common good and squarely address growing poverty.
One person said in a Bible study run by Monroe; “In this city, the poor are of no importance. We are just a nuisance in the way of redevelopment.”
Monroe was the recipient of a one-year fellowship from the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society for social justice and advocacy work for The Episcopal Church. (The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society is the legal and canonical name under which The Episcopal Church is incorporated, conducts business, and caries out mission.) Monroe’s ministry is featured in an ENS article here.
The Diocese of Olympia (Episcopal Church in Western Washington) includes about 31,000 people in more than 100 churches.