On March 31, the same day the homeless advocacy group SHARE began a sleep-in protest outside the King County Administration building, a city employee donated several dozen ORCA transit passes to the campers at the SHARE-administered Tent City 5 in Ballard. The passes, which would allow unlimited transit travel for about a week, were part of a city program that distributes the cards to “disadvantaged communities/service providers, etc.”
When the cards were dropped off—between 50 and 80 of them, depending on whom you ask—at the front security desk, “The guard profusely thanked our staff member saying that they were running out of bus tickets and this would be helpful,” says Lois Maag of the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, which oversaw the cards’ distribution. “The assumption was the cards would to go to the campers.” And, indeed, an elected camp leader distributed the bus passes to campers shortly after they were dropped off.
However, hours later, word came from the central leadership of SHARE, the organization that runs the Ballard encampment, that the passes were to be re-collected and brought to the SHARE office. The next day, a handful of passes were returned to the camp, with instructions from SHARE staff that they were to be used only for campers traveling to SHARE meetings or the protest encampment.
According to SHARE leadership, gathering the cards and distributing them to campers was a reasonable step and in line with what any organization would do if given significant donation. To others, though, it smacked of using goods meant to help the poor to aid in SHARE’s well-known propensity for political theater.
The encampment outside the King County Administration building, along with the closure of most of its indoor shelters, is part of SHARE’s sustained effort to pressure county leaders to resume funding that was shifted to other agencies at the end of 2014. This isn’t the first time SHARE has used public theater to influence officials. Since its inception during the 1990 Goodwill Games, SHARE has been pushing local leaders on homelessness, and can take much of the credit for establishing Seattle’s tent cities. Unlike most of its peer agencies, SHARE organizes homeless people in addition to serving them, and has earned a reputation as one of Seattle’s most activist city contractors.
This also isn’t the first time the organization has been accused of using its resources to encourage, or pressure, campers to participate in its activism. A 2013 Seattle Times story reported that SHARE threatened to withhold shelter from homeless campers who didn’t publicly advocate for SHARE’s platform. SHARE denied the accusations. The exact circumstances of the bus pass donation, distribution, and redistribution is a bit murky.
Louie Warren, a camper and sometimes-executive committee member at the Ballard tent camp, told Seattle Weekly on April 1 that 80 ORCA passes were dropped off that Thursday morning for the campers at the Ballard encampment. “It was a woman who showed up, hands them over,” he says, “and says, ‘This is from Sound Transit.’ And then she was gone before I could . . . ask questions.”
Since each pass had unlimited rides for only about a week and the clock was ticking, Warren decided to hand them to campers. But there were too many passes—he says he was able to distribute only 22. So he called another camp in South Seattle and asked if they wanted the rest. They did.
“Well, that never happened,” Warren says ruefully. “ ’Cause I also called SHARE for good measure, to let them know what was up.”
That afternoon, while Warren was absent, the campers gave up their ORCA passes. “Apparently [SHARE staff member] Michelle [Marchand] called back almost immediately and said that she wants all those cards rounded back up and returned,” says Warren. “So everyone had to give back their cards and they were going to be redistributed.”
Robert Bowen, another camper, confirms this. “Once the [SHARE] office had gotten the message [about the ORCA passes] two hours later, they called back and said ‘Can you please gather them back up? We’d like to re-disperse them. We’d like to take ownership of those,’ because that’s the policy: to take ownership of all donations. They re-gathered them up, redistributed them, and then our encampment ended up with eight passes.”
Those passes, though, were allowed only for commuting to and from SHARE meetings or the camp-in protest, Bowen says. Attendance counted toward the “community credit” hours SHARE campers are required to do each week.
“We can’t judge one person’s action greater than another, so what they simply did was just require that the cards be used to function with the SHARE organization’s own needs,” says Bowen, who is supportive of SHARE’s actions. “We’re also trying not to show any favoritism.”
To Warren, using the donated bus passes solely for a protest is an infuriating waste of resources. “We’re supposed to allocate those to the two people that we’re sending every day to go to this protest,” he says. “Which does not make sense, because we still have paper [transit] tickets, which are one-time use.” These ORCA passes, on the other hand, “are all-week passes. You could use them a million times if you wanted to. So why on earth would you give an unlimited bus pass to a person who’s only going to use it for a quick, short ride to where we all know they’re going, and they’re going to sit there and literally camp out?”
SHARE board member Jarvis Capucion, on the other hand, said there was nothing unusual or untoward about the ORCA card use.
“It is SHARE policy to accept all donations with a monetary value on behalf of the organization, and then decide within the SHARE community how to best use the resource. No agency would allow the staff person at the front desk accepting donations to have sole discretion of how to allocate them,” Capucion wrote in an e-mail.
He argues that SHARE—which has been criticized by the city and the Times editorial board in recent weeks for the protest—receives an undue amount of scrutiny because of its unusual self-governing model. “You wouldn’t be even raising an eyebrow about this policy if we were a traditional homeless mission or agency,” he wrote.
“Maybe you should scrutinize the outrageous shenanigans of the governmental bureaucracies that are not supporting our shelters, instead. As you are well aware, we have been warning of our funding insufficiency for well over a year. The bureaucratic silence in response to our pleas is what really needs to be questioned.” E