Posted October 11, 2014 by Cooper Point Journal in Community

Olympia street outreach offers alternative model to charity

By Felix Asherah Chrome

Any given night walking around in downtown Olympia one is likely to encounter a group of people gathered on a corner eating pizza or pastries, drinking coffee, and digging through piles of clothes and blankets. This is the scene surrounding the volunteers who ride for EGYHOP, or the Emma Goldman Youth and Homeless Outreach Program.

EGYHOP is an organization that collects donations of food, blankets, medical and first aid supplies, clothes, tents, and more, and distributes them to street-dependent and house-less people downtown from trailers rigged on the back of bike. House-less is a term used, instead of the more common “homeless,” because it more accurately portrays someone’s lack of a house, while home is a subjective word that can mean many things depending on the person and situation.

EGYHOP’s mission is about meeting people where they are, and where they need services most, at night when people may not have access to help because many organizations are closed. This mission aims to go beyond charity to build and foster community. Having the same small group of volunteers ride every week, and providing services every night of the year, allows them to become trusted faces downtown and begin to form bonds and friendships with the people they work with. These relationships can be very important. In the past, EGYHOP has even held memorials for people who died on the streets.

I think it’s just as important for the people who ride as for the people downtown. We’re just all there together trying to share some sort of space.” -Emma Thomson

“Instead of thinking of EGYHOP as a charity or non profit it is really about solidarity work…it’s really not about just handing things out or making yourself feel good,” said long-time volunteer Emma Thomson. Their model of street based outreach rebels against the traditional ways social services are dispensed in offices or shelters, and attempts to create real relationships. As Thomson explained, “I think it’s just as important for the people who ride as for the people downtown. We’re just all there together trying to share some sort of space.”

EGYHOP is named after Emma Goldman, a prominent revolutionary and anarchist in the early 20th century. While she was a great writer and thinker, Goldman never treated her politics as purely theoretical and made sure to take a hands-on approach. She learned skills such as nursing and midwifery and discusses in her autobiography how these pursuits furthered her radical ideals.

“Her idea was that we need to know how to take care of everyone, and take care of each other, because when the impending revolution comes, we’re going to need everybody,” Thomson said. EGYHOP’s day-to-day operations carry this legacy with them. Thomson says she often thinks about this when she rides and that is why “it’s really important to build relationships in general because we’re all going to need to be together, and help one another, and fight for one another.”

EGYHOP was started in 1998 by a person known to everyone as Long Hair Dave. He was involved with other outreach and harm reduction projects in Olympia, but saw that needs were not being met for a lot of street-dependent youth downtown. Dave began trying to fill in the gaps in what was being provided by giving away emergency supplies that people needed in order to make it through the night until they could access broader services that opened during the day. EGYHOP is an all-volunteer anarchist collective, so it changes over the years depending on who is involved. But it continues to serve the same mission, distributing what they see is needed every night.

Long Hair Dave also saw a need for clean needles or syringe exchange. EGYHOP continues to collect dirty needles and distribute clean syringes and other supplies for safer injection to this day. They have now partnered with the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, a syringe distribution organization operated out of Seattle. While most needle exchanges operate a one-for-one policy, EGYHOP has caused some controversy by allowing people to get clean needles even if they do not have dirty ones with them. However, a statement on their website claims they collected 350,000 dirty syringes and distributed 300,000 clean ones and they “consistently collect more syringes than [they] give out each year.”

While harm reduction is often used as a euphemism for needle exchange or distribution in the media, it is a philosophy that goes beyond just this one program. Harm reduction is a model for any service or program that helps people who are participating in what would be considered high risk activities or behaviors (most often drug use or sex work) to be as safe as possible under that circumstance without imposing moral judgments or trying to dictate their behavior.

“Harm reduction is really antagonistic to what is usually taught in our dominant system that abstinence and sobriety are number one and any service you’re doing for someone is in the hopes that they are working towards becoming abstinent,” Thomson said.

Harm reduction functions within EGYHOP beyond just needle exchange because this idea focuses on meeting people where they are. EGYHOP does this by providing mobile, direct services to where they perceive the greatest need. This cuts out many obstacles, such as being sober, that exist in entering a lot of social service spaces. Fundamentally, this furthers their goal of going beyond services to create strong connections within our community.