Why “Protect Our Children” Doesn’t

Here in Washington, we don’t have Election Day, we have election week. With all mail balloting the norm here, it means that we don’t always have the final tally of votes at the end of Election Day. Votes that are postmarked on Election Day are still valid, and as they come in a close election could be undecided and the leader can even switch as they are tallied.

It was a low-key election season in Olympia. With no major national or state-wide elections on the ballot, the focus was on local races. (The exception being of course the initiative to label GMO foods, which lost.) One of the things I love about our town, and living in a small city in general, is that the issues facing the candidates are tangible and concrete, and make a real difference in the lives of the citizens. Candidates are accessible and known, and everyone gets involved in this most important civic process.

I was dismayed this past election season when our local elections took a new low. This year one of the issues facing our community is the desire for a “low barrier” shelter. Recognizing a need in our community, Interfaith Works and other social service agencies have moved forward a proposal to establish a permanent, professional shelter which would take the place of some of the temporary beds available plus reach out to a population that is underserved. While various locations were scouted, the most promising off of Eastside Street was met with swift and vehement opposition by a vocal group of nearby neighbors.

This issue then became swept up in the election season, and was an issue facing the candidates. Candidate Mike Volz had his window broken on his auto shop, and he blamed his opposition to the shelter for the vandalism, despite the fact there was no proof. The Olympian reported this as fact, and indeed, in their endorsement editorial, tried to make this a one-issue election. And most discouraging, an organization called “Protect Our Children” printed and distributed a mailer which reaches a new low in civic discourse.

I first became aware of “Protect Our Children” during the time the proposal for the shelter was for the Eastside location. I was in the middle of things, both as a supportive member of the faith communities and as an Eastside resident. One day, driving home from school pickup on the first day of school, I passed by St. Michaels and saw a big sign with the “Protect our Children” logo and people distributing literature. After dropping the kids at home I walked over to see what was up.

This was a group that was firmly in opposition to the shelter. When I expressed my support to the person handing out the flyers, I proceeded to have a conversation in which I felt condescended to, as in, “how can anyone support the shelter, and if you do you are naïve and ill-informed.” The name of the group, and the literature, pointed to the tactic underlying this group—trading on fear tactics and the demonization of the homeless.

This was confirmed by the mailer distributed. I didn’t get it at my house, but I heard about it and there is a copy of it posted on line. In short, the mailer asked voters to vote for Mike Volz because, as it reads, his opponent Julie Hankins wants sex offenders to live near children. Or, in other words, Hankins’ vote for funding for a low barrier shelter is tantamount to her affirmative desire to put children at risk of sexual abuse. Misguided and hurtful.

I’m not naïve to know that we are facing real challenges in our community with drug use and abuse, violence, criminal behavior, untreated mental illness and destruction of property. But what this mailer demonstrates is a willingness to trade on fear while at the same time lumping together all those who struggle with homelessness into one composite. It is dehumanizing, and ineffective because it won’t address the whole issue.

I want to protect my children from harm. What parent doesn’t? At the same time I also want to protect my children from bigotry, from hatred, from fear tactics. And I want to expose my children to the challenging parts of our society—homelessness, poverty, other societal ills—so they understand and recognize that they have obligations not only to themselves but to others. That they need to be concerned not only with their own welfare but with that of those who are in desperate need.

And while the fight over the shelter goes on, for the past two weeks members of Temple Beth Hatfiloh have been staffing the Interfaith Works overflow shelter, housed at First Christian Church. (We will house the shelter in December over the Christmas holiday.) Some of our volunteers also bring their kids (I have on one occasion as well) to spend the night, a powerful way to get our youth involved in Tikkun Olam while at the same time educating them to some of our real challenges as a community.

The best way to protect our children is not to build walls but to build bridges, not to avert our eyes but to open them. I’ll vote for that.

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