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My Spiritual Experience at an Anchorage Assembly Meeting (video fixed)

(Shay Kelly and Shane Patrick of Project 50/50)

By Linda Kellen Biegel

When I left for the Anchorage Assembly Meeting Tuesday night, there were certain things I already knew to expect:

— Mayor Sullivan wanted the ordinance that (among other things) banned sitting/reclining on the sidewalk pulled from the agenda and sent back to a committee to be “fixed” (Translation: Mayor Sullivan was getting pounded in the press and in public opinion and just wanted it to stop)

— Debbie Ossiander and/or the Mayor made it clear to the media that public testimony on the Ordinance would still be open Tuesday night, but would be continued when the Ordinance came out of whatever committee they put it in. (Another Osiander/Sullivan faux pas: Paul Honeman made it clear that statement was premature, as the Assembly as a group decides when and if that happens. Ooops…)

— There would probably be some people there who wanted to testify anyway.

Previous research also told me that it was HIGHLY likely that I would be happy with the vast majority of the testimony as it would probably support defeat of the ordinance.

What I didn’t expect:

— Every single person who testified was against the ordinance.

— Something the Mayor also didn’t expect — that Jennifer Johnston wouldn’t show up for the meeting without so much as a phone call. (I wonder if she turned off her phone after she saw how the meeting went?)

— I also had no idea that what ensued would be the equivalent, at least for me, of a spiritual experience.

Understand, it is highly unusual for me to discuss these matters in print. I have a sort-of all-encompassing spiritual philosophy…that different things work for different people and so be it. However, I’m not talking about specific views of religion or a Higher Power…I’m talking about people testifying about their life experiences from the depths of their very souls. We were listening to profound, absolute truths of the human condition. For that kind of truth, “spiritual” is the only word I can find to describe it.

Here is the video from the Assembly website. It starts with the Ordinance testimony and runs to the end of the meeting, where the Assembly (after much gnashing of teeth) voted to table it indefinitely.

Get Microsoft Silverlight

I highly encourage everyone to watch the entire video for a number of reasons. The first is to see the terrific testimony. Here are some highlights:

Rebecca Shier, former homeless foster child and current foster child advocate:

“I just think if [the sidewalk issue] has never been brought up and we have such a huge homeless population here in Anchorage, why is it being brought up now?”

The best part of Ms. Shier’s testimony was her response to questions from Assemblyman Adam Trombley, who visibly seemed to be struggling with this issue throughout the meeting.

Trombley: “Thank you for coming down. You mentioned that you at one point in time were homeless?”

Shier: “Yes.”

Trombley: “What did you do, since homelessness is an issue in this town, what did you do to get yourself out of that situation? Because, I’m assuming that you are no longer homeless, correct?”

Shier: “Yes, I’m only 20. I was homeless off-and-on my whole life since I was 7 [years-old]. As you guys probably know, the average age of a homeless person here is 7-years-old. I think if it wasn’t an older male with some past criminal history it would be a different story. If I was laying out there and I was 8-years-old I think someone would try to help me. They wouldn’t come and tell me that I’m going to be arrested.” [She goes on to describe some of the places she’s had to sleep.]

Trombley: “My question is, what did you do to get yourself out of this? Obviously, you sound like you’re employed, you work downtown. What did you do? Obviously, you got yourself out of the sitution, what was it? You made the decision?”

Shier: “I made the decision…I was a kid so I would just go to Covenant House or someone that could help me, my friend’s house or someone at the school or something. But it’s different when you’re a kid because everyone wants to help you. When you’re an adult nobody wants to help you because they don’t feel bad for you.”

Ivan Hodes testified to an inconsistency that had been bugging me as well:

“I just wanted to point out that, several months ago, the Mayor vetoed the ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation on the grounds that there was insufficient empirical evidence that people were harmed by sexual orientation based discrimination. I would encourage all of you, when you are considering this ordinance, to ask yourselves if there is any empirical evidence whatsoever that anybody is harmed by people sitting standing or sleeping on a public city sidewalk.”

Mary Morgan, 1st time testifier, had me choking back tears while she described her experiences of being homeless with little children. One part of her testimony as to how someone can get to that place was like a punch in the gut. It reminded me of what I went through to get sober (unemployment, food stamps) and it also mirrored what my bio-sis told me about her incredible downward spiral from full-time nurse to living in a homeless shelter:

“I as a citizen am very offended by some of the statements made by you, Mayor…the statements regarding if someone is “presentable enough” to be asked to come and be in your presence. That is very, very, very offensive…”

“…People get stuck in situations all the time. But what happens is that one thing layers on another, layers on another, layers on another. Until, what you know or think or ever thought might have been your dream becomes totally covered by the mess that you are in.”

(It should be noted that during this extremely emotional and powerful testimony, Mayor Sullivan decided it was a good idea to ignore it and have a laugh with Cheryl Frasca sitting next to him. No, I didn’t get a picture because I was riveted.)

Lysa Maher:

“I have very little public speaking experience, except at funerals. But if this ordinance is allowed to pass, that experience will serve me well because this will be a slow death of the First Amendment.”

Then, this young woman stepped to the microphone and literally rocked the house:

Shay Kelley, Project 50/50:

“As I’ve travelled throughout major cities in the US, I’ve seen a lot of these types of ordinances presented…there’s a lot of movement in that direction. To me, it’s evident that this is an effort to ignore or hide or kind of push away a problem.”

“There are going to be people who choose not to participate in the system we have established as a society. I think that hiding that is not a solution and that these ordinances are ultimately effecting freedom of speech in a protest situation but also freedom of choice. Individuals should have the option to sit down on the sidewalk if they choose to do that. It’s a public sidewalk. So, obviously my perception of this ordinance is that it shouldn’t be passed because it’s a violation of basic civil freedoms. But, it also goes much deeper than that. There is a systematic approach to oppression that step-by-step, one-by-one-by-one violates people’s individual freedoms. And this is one of many steps in that direction.”

“The ordinance itself was taken from Seattle’s Municipal Code. If you look at Seattle’s Municipal Code, you should also look at the overall picture of poverty in Seattle and the choices they made in dealing with things — everything from sidewalk issues to campsites. So, I definitely urge everyone to take a look at Seattle’s overall picture, particularly Nicklesville, which is still in operation in Seattle, now. I’ve been there and it’s really cool how things like that will work out.”

However, it was her response to questions from Assemblywoman Harriet Drummond that were the most powerful. She explained to everyone who she was and where Project 50/50 came from. Then when Ms. Drummond asked her to apply her experience to Anchorage, her response was dead-on to what has been happening here for the last several years. While she knew absolutely nothing specific about what the Mayor has been doing within the Municipality since his election, Ms. Kelley managed to not only disarm him with her words, but score repeated direct hits.

“One of the most discouraging things is that as I’ve been to every city and state, there is nothing that is “working.” You’ll never find a community where homelessness does not exist. That’s not happening. I think as we look at that it’s because our approach is that we’re waiting for someone else to solve the problem. We are the solution.—every single one of us. Poverty is everywhere; the difference is in how the community responds to it. Which is why Anchorage is so fascinating to me right now–it’s about how the community responds. In my personal experiences I’ve seen a couple of different systems in place. Sometimes the community responds by criminalizing it, so people are punished legally for being poor. Through tickets for panhandling and then tickets for people who give to panhandlers, tickets for sitting on sidewalks, tickets for illegal camping—this is all part of a criminalization of poverty. Obviously, that doesn’t work because poverty doesn’t go away when you ticket it. Another response is to ignore it. This is when we see cities with high rates of visible poverty because rather than criminalizing it, people just pretend that it doesn’t exist. So, that’s when you see a lot of desensitization. You see situations like Skid Row in Los Angeles where you have 5,000 homeless people in 20 city blocks. You have a lot of people on the street and visible…that comes from ignoring it, trying to hide it. Then you have to me the ideal response, which I’ve never found community-wide but I’ve found it in small groups of remarkable people who love unconditionally. That’s the love response…the response of the community to include rather than exclude. So, instead of saying that, “I’m not going to talk to you because you look dirty and you smell bad.” Or, “I’m not going to include you in our government system or our social system.” To rather say, “We are a family, we are a community family. So, if you’re hungry than you’re my hungry brother. We’re going to eat together as a family and we’re going to make sure that everyone is warm together as a family.” That inclusive, love response to poverty is what is ultimately, always the most successful.

“…Can we say “look at this city and let’s just do that?” No—but I think that’s why you have such a remarkable opportunity. The world is watching you right now. You can change everything. Everyone in the country can look at Anchorage and say “Look what they did!” “Look at how they empowered all of these people!” “Let’s be like that!” Not you guys try to be everybody else. We tell our high schoolers not to try to fit in. Do something different and set a new stage.”

It was amazing to hear someone share in the Anchorage Assembly chamber that the only real solution to homelessness and poverty involved “loving” and “empowering” people. It was also amazing to watch a certain contingent of our Municipal government, the contingent that prides themselves on their “family values,” squirm and look very uncomfortable while she spoke.

That brings me to the second reason to watch the video. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one who felt the unusual energy in the room, but it definitely affected Mayor Sullivan in a different way. Maybe it was the fact that the Mayor knew he was losing, but he was in rare form Tuesday night. His behavior was the same as I remember during the public testimony on the ordinance banning smoking in the workplace (another big loss for him) when he was Assembly Chair. He specifically tried to go after young, female testifiers who were nervous and speaking about their life experiences…in other words, they were scoring major points. He would ask “questions” after their testimony that had nothing to do with gaining information. They seemed to be meant more to intimidate than anything else. Also, when the Assembly tried several times until they were successful to table the ordinance indefinitely, the Mayor broke in inappropriately several times to try and sway the outcome. After he lost, he was seen, redfaced, complaining to those around him at his section of the dias.

And, of course, the Mayor didn’t learn a thing:

Sullivan said he will ask the city’s Public Safety Advisory Commission to review the proposed law that was before the Assembly and variations of it. That’s what he had intended to do anyway.

The commission members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Assembly.

He’d like them to look into expanding sidewalk-sitting restrictions to other parts of town like Eagle River and Midtown, as some Assembly members have suggested, Sullivan said.

He also wants to explore tying sidewalk restrictions to certain zoning districts, as Seattle does, Sullivan said.

Stay tuned…we’ll stay on top of this!



45 Responses to “My Spiritual Experience at an Anchorage Assembly Meeting (video fixed)”
  1. kenaialaskan says:

    No words to express my gratitude at intimate view of the assembly meeting. Mudflats again provides the hope that cannot be found in our news media.

  2. Really? says:

    Linda, Your account of the meeting brought tears to my eyes. Speaking from the heart like the citizens did, helps others have more hope for their and their families future. Homeless children, families, adults, are at such high risk of being taken advantage of , it’s fortunate for the citizens of Alaska there are so many people who believe in love and givinG. :HUMANKIND–Be Both.

  3. fishingmamma says:

    This blogger changed the name of the ordinance to something more approprate:

    “The safe Mayor bill’

  4. leenie17 says:

    Linda – a little OT but…

    What is the scoop with your blog?

    Do you still have it because I keep getting a strange page from Apache Tomcat when I click on the new links?

  5. Ivan Hodes says:

    I did want to say a word in defense of Adam Trombley (whose political philosophy I abhor full-throatedly). Although I found his line of questioning rather obnoxious, it semeed sincere, and I noticed that after the adjournment he took the time to go over, introduce himself to the two women he had engaged with during their testimony, and give him their card. I do think that anyone who is willing to reach out to people of opposing political views and worldviews is entitled to some measure of commendation.

    • Ivan — thank you so much for your excellent testimony. You made a point that I believe folks (especially in the LGBT community) should start pounding very loudly since the Mayor insists on retooling this ordinance in “his committee.”

      Regarding Trombley, I actually have hope for him and I meant my comments about him to reflect that. He was visibly uncomfortable with all of this…especially when the nervous young women got up and shared life-experience testimony that was jaw-dropping. However, he continued to vote with the “Team Sully” block until the very end, when they finally realized that not having Jennifer Johnston there was the death knell.

      The power of Tuesday night for me was the irony. There was the well-to-do self-described “Conservative Christians” sitting high above us and a humble young woman whose life most closely models the teachings of the New Testament stood at the podium and handed them their hats without rancor, using simple truth. I’ll never forget it.

  6. thatcrowwoman says:

    Quyana, Linda, many thanks, for this update.
    Slimy Sully was a bit squirmish, eh?

  7. Thank you for getting this information out to those of us who could not be there.

  8. WakeUpAmerica says:

    Lovely, sensitive, informative post. Thank you. Anchorage and Mayor Sullivan need to realize that the world is watching (thanks to the Tundra Turd). They can no longer operate covertly in their usual racist, insensitive, arrogant manner and not be noticed.

  9. fishingmamma says:

    An article by Jim Wallis over on Huffpo today that seemed relevant to this discussion:

    “Faith leaders say God is biased in such matters, and prefers to protect the poor instead of the rich, and instructs the faithful to do the same. This is class warfare now, and when it breaks out, the Bible suggests that God is on the side of defending the poor from assault.”

    • I read that article as well (I am a big Jim Wallis/Sojourner fan) and I truly loved this paragraph:

      “Forty-eight hours after President Obama mentioned corporate jet tax deductions, and suggested they might not be as important as scholarships for low-income kids going to college for the first time, a headline appeared in the New York Times reading, “Industry Set for Fight to Keep Corporate Jet Tax Breaks.” Wow. That was pretty fast. The ones who will win the current battle over the budget and deficit are the ones who are watching. As the book of Proverbs teaches, the poor are shunned, but the rich have many friends.”

  10. beth says:

    DHs first career was in the US Military; his second, in education at the jr. college level. Held in highest esteem by everyone, he was particularily sought out for his ‘problem solving’ skills…specifically problems involving people. He was -and is– excellent in that area.

    Funnily enough, he’s never held his simple, Simple, Simple ‘solution’ as a secret — he keeps tossing it out for any one and every one to also use, but there are few takers *even though* they see the nearly-immediate and tangible results when *he* employs it! Odd, that.

    Here it is: If someone is acting like a child, stop treating them like a child.

    Amazing what can happen when *equals* meet with respect and what incredible paths they can blaze when they work *together* to solve a common problem. beth.

  11. marlys says:

    Shay Kelley indeed rocked the House ..I appreciate that Harriet Drummand encouraged her to expand and speak more at length about what she has learned in her travels. I hope to hear more from this highly insightful young woman.
    Thank you Linda for your work on bringing these topics to the forefront *~~~

  12. Millie says:

    I so appreciate your communications about this matter, Linda. I watched the entire Assembly Meeting on TV and am continually appalled at Mayor Sullivan. Truly feel the man has no soul.

    Loved the testimony of that little girl from Project 50/50 and also the words of the lady who had worked for the Municipality for many years.

    I’m also sure that the mayor will not let this subject drop from his headlights.

    Bottom line – we all need to help each other and have open hearts to those in need.

  13. SO bummeed I didn’t make it down for the meeting. I was thinking about you all, and hope I was there in spirit. What a wonderful report.
    That whole piece about Anchorage being able to have an original response to issues such as homelessness is so right on. The same could be said for the whole state. We have more resources at our disposal than probably any other state, with fewer people. We should be able to accomplish miracles.

  14. Polarbear says:

    Seems to me if sidewalk protestors wanted to be most effective, they would sit in front of McGinley’s Pub, not the Mayor’s office. Sidewalk campers could take pictures of who goes in alone, and then comes out hooked up, so to speak. That would be an interesting list.

  15. Zyxomma says:

    Linda, I adore you, but I’ll never install Silverlight on my Mac, thus NO video for me. Isn’t there some other video streaming service (youtube, vimeo) you could use? Silverlight is horrid. The bf installed it, and went through hell. It tries to take over the Mac, and it’s an altogether bad experience. Got what I could out of your summaries.

  16. aussiegal77 says:

    All I can say is – where is the church in Anchorage on this issue? The silence is deafening!

    It’s a sheer disgrace that not more Christians step up to help the poor in the US. I am not excluding myself here. Maybe my fellow Christians should spend less time vilifying those whose life choices we don’t agree with and spend more time just plain loving EVERYONE. Regardless of social status, race, colour etc etc – whatever else that divides us these days.

    I can moralise and lecture and preach all I want – but ultimately no one will listen to my message if all I am doing is bashing them. People need help! People are in slavery to drugs, alcohol, poverty. People are being oppressed! The church is supposed to be a refuge to the weary, to the down trodden, to the oppressed. WHY ISN’T IT????

    Thank you for sharing this and thanks to those who testified. I’m convicted of being insensitive to poverty and those in need.

  17. BeeJay says:

    Linda – I’m only showing 35 seconds of video here. It runs just fine, but there’s nothing else…

    Sullivan = a$$hat.

    I have a former brother-in-law who lived in one of the Nickelsvilles (there are actually several) for about three years. Run by the residents themselves, they have strong rules about alcohol and drugs (none, or you’re out), quiet hours, good security by the residents, and scrupulously clean. The ex bro-in-law was (and is) suffering from substance abuse, and he had managed to burn all of his bridges with his family, my family. He’s in New Zealand now, trying to start it all over (born there, grew up here, never naturalized).

    Layers upon layers of problems…I like that.

    • My boo boo…I fixed the video.

      And the layers upon layers…it so accurately describes how it happens. If it wasn’t for a small inheritance from my grandmother (that I completely used up just surviving) and some financial help from my family, I would have been homeless. For the three years that I was unemployable, the first three years of my sobriety, all I could do was go to 12-step meetings and therapy. No one talks about what happens when you give up the addictions that are actually your coping mechanisms — masking the mental illness you didn’t know you had (severe depression, PTSD, ADD, etc…). I was literally just one baby step away from homelessness the entire time. I thought I would never be able to hold down a job or have any semblence of a normal life…hell, I didn’t know what normal was.

      • leenie17 says:

        Wow…I had no idea you had been through all that. Clearly, you’ve come out the other side even stronger. Thankfully you had the strength to recognize your problem, the will to overcome it and the family to support you in the process.

        I don’t know much about addition, but I suspect that most people who become addicted to alcohol and/or drugs have underlying emotional or mental problems that make them susceptible to getting caught up in the dependency. Most healthy, stable people don’t just start taking drugs or drinking to excess – there is a trigger of some kind that starts them down that road. Sadly, too many of them never have the opportunity, or the strength, to deal with both the addiction and the cause.

        I’m so glad you were able to get the help you needed and make a good life for yourself and your family. You are an important voice for those who have no voice and we are all better off for what you do.

        And you’re really good at gardening too! 😉

      • BeeJay says:

        Thank you Linda!

        But for the support of family, I’d be in extremely dire straits too. I teach, albeit in a field (social studies) that doesn’t get a lot of vacancies, and when you live in rural circumstances as I do, it’s even tougher. I’ve been below the poverty line for one person for oh, about 4 years now, and because I’ve been able to substitute teach I’ve had some income, although not always enough. School starts in a couple of weeks, so I’ll be able to re-start making some moola then. Paycheck to paycheck? I’m less than a paycheck from devastation. Savings? Nada, long gone. On the good side, I have no debt, which is a blessing, I’m single, and I’m healthy – all of which I give thanks for.

        I am lucky to have the family that I have, as my parents have been able to send me some when I need it. Their moral support means even more than the financial side.

      • Barbara Honeman says:

        I am so proud of you and all the folks who have been there, and are now willing to try to help others. That makes you a hero. And you hit the nail square on the head when you said nobody talks about what happens when you give up your addictions. I remember one of my son’s who said almost your same words-“I will never be able to hold down a job and have any kind of normal life”. Thank God he was wrong-as you were. He will always live with the pain and guilt he caused himself and others. His salvation has been the love and help of many-and now helping others out of the dark place he has been. Now if we can get our fellow men and women to work on real solutions. I remember once hearing that the least Lovable he is,the more a child needs Love. We are ALL children. Keep up the great work!

  18. I See Villages From My House says:

    The inexorable mayor. Politicians like him, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin never grow in their publically placed extraordinary surroundings, constantly exposed to personal narratives and real life anecdotes that should influence policy.

    Trombley is typical of rigid conservatives that are forced to step outside their bubble, they try and grapple with human fallibility, vulnerability but only hope to see boot-strap results. The pretend small business owner (apparently, lying about your credentials are an okay human fallibility, being poor isn’t) Trombley needs to realize it is people like him that are responsible in creating environments in which people would aspire to boot-strapping in the first place. Being visibly uncomfortable and grappling with zoning-enforced human misery, may add a layer of personal growth for a young whipper-snapper like Trombley, maybe a ‘compassionate’ conservative lurks under his Sullivan Goon Squad facade?

    Linda, gadfly’s like you, AKM and Ann Kilkenny are invaluable. Quyana, thank you for your service (without a title) to ‘progress’ your fellow man. And thanks to those who testified in favor of love and empowerment.

  19. tallimat says:

    I had a response all composed, but that quake a few moments ago was a real shaker.
    I’m kinda spooked.
    Gonna go gather up the little one and put her on the couch. Just incase I gotta grab her and run out of the house.

    I really felt that quake and I’m in north mat su borough.
    Be back later.

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