This summer and fall, Poverty Action staff, board members, and facilitators from our Community Leadership Groups (including the Poverty Reduction Work Group and the Campaign for Cash), traveled to High Point, Ellensburg, Spokane, and Skagit (virtually) to host Listening Sessions. Each Listening Session was planned in partnership with local organizations working actively with the communities we traveled to. We structured our sessions to allow space for every participant to share their experiences and perspective. We facilitated conversations around accessing financial assistance and basic needs programs, the criminal justice system, healthcare and consumer debt, and more.

Facilitators from the Poverty Reduction Work Group and the Campaign for Cash did incredible work to make these Listening Sessions productive, welcoming, and inclusive conversations. For many, this was their first time facilitating, while for others it was an opportunity to refine their skills. These folks stepped up to not only ask questions and do time management, but also open up about their lived experiences to help attendees feel safe sharing their stories and build community across the state. We cannot emphasize enough how grateful we are for their vulnerability, their bravery, and their facilitating skill that made these sessions successful.

Across these sessions, we heard several key themes including barriers to entry and difficulty navigating benefits systems, high costs of living, difficulty repaying debt, a need for free spaces and activities for youth, and reckoning with public safety.

For a summary of each of these key themes, read the full recap. This blog post will explore what we heard about public safety in our state.

Folks across the state are reckoning with the fact that the people who exist to keep them safe are oftentimes causing harm.

Unhoused folks across the state face difficult decisions when it comes to seeking help and finding a safe place to simply exist. As we heard in Ellensburg, “I think it would go a long way to public health and safety if homelessness itself was decriminalized. Because you’re not just out there avoiding people who might possibly want to do you harm. You’re also having to avoid the police and other officials so you can find a place to sleep at night with your kid or with your family and you’re dirty, you don’t have any food. But you can’t go to anybody because you’re going to get picked up for loitering or for your tags or for being somewhere you’re not supposed to be and you’re going to get in more debt, more bonds and more down because you’re having to avoid those people.” For folks in this situation, police can often be another source of harm.

High Point attendees brought up “a lack of culturally competent police presence. Just because many speak English as a second language. So, most of the times, they don’t have support, language-wise, in order to communicate with those police officers.” That said, High Point attendees raised concerns about a need for more public safety infrastructure to reduce gun violence in their community. At that session, we heard that:

“The gun violence is huge. People are getting shot. Our sons and daughters are out there shooting others, and they’re very young. The peer pressure is very big. You go to school. There are little gangs. “They’ll beat you up if you don’t do this, if you don’t do that.” And this is eighth grade, seventh grade.

And the school system definitely needs a makeover. It needs to start from within and be gutted. Also, drugs. There are a lot of drugs out in the community. She was talking about everywhere you go. You go to the store on every corners, you can smell marijuana very big and it stinks. And she doesn’t wake up and go to the store so that she smells marijuana. She’s trying to buy food for her kids.

And so, that’s also a public safety concern, and we need to put … The government and legislators need to put more money in to helping incarcerated individuals come out and be successful, especially those that are really rehabilitated and want to move forward in their life.”

High Point Listening Session Attendee

Across the state, we heard concerns for the financial stability of folks who are or have been incarcerated. Folks who are incarcerated cannot earn enough to buy necessities at commissary, and a criminal record often prevents people from getting hired once they get out. In Ellensburg, we heard that “I’m a Wildland firefighter. I carry my red card and everything like that. I fought fires in prison. I got out and tried to go and get a regular job as a Wildland firefighter with a Black Hat crew in Black Hills, South Dakota. Because I had a felony, I couldn’t get that job. But yet, I fought side-by-side with them when I was incarcerated.”

Similarly, in Spokane we heard that “How can we rehabilitate people when there’s no resources to rehabilitate people? At the end of the day, people are just going to re-offend when they are released. I think a lot of them do want it, but when my brother was incarcerated, he was working for 12 cents an hour. How is he going to support himself? Commissary is 300 bucks.” People can’t support themselves while incarcerated, and they face roadblocks instead of support and rehabilitation once released. As the speaker indicated, this makes it so difficult to find a path to meeting basic needs that doesn’t involve returning to criminal behavior.

Communities across the state would benefit from a reimagining of public safety to better support individuals before they get into the criminal justice system and help folks successfully transition back into society afterwards. In our Skagit session, we heard that “one of the things that stood out to me was it was very difficult for youth as well as the families to transition back into the community without being, I guess, judged. There was not a lot of support, whether it was through the educational system, as well as other services, for example, mental health services, other support services. There was just a lack then and it still exists now. So to sum it up, that work was very reactive. So reacting to a problem or a situation instead of being proactive. And so it would be just lovely if we could get to a time in life where we look at these challenges more proactively.”

This requires not just, as we heard in High Point, “just building more community with our neighbors, especially knowing who our neighbors are and their stories, as well,” but also building systems that are more focused on safety and community thriving than they are on punishing offenders or those deemed problematic without hearing their stories. In Washington, we need to reimagine public safety to build communities where everyone can thrive.

Read more in-depth about each of our key themes: