OLYMPIA - A legislator raced through the state’s John L. O’Brien Building shouting, “Oh, no, another river of Catholics.”
A river it was, 650 strong, many of them wearing red on Catholic Advocacy Day. The March 26 event was a chance for Catholics from around the state to lobby their legislators on issues of prime importance to the state’s neediest residents.
“You have an opportunity to make a difference,” said Sister Sharon Park, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, who headlined the gathering. “They will listen. You are their voters. We need to take a strong position for those who don’t have a voice.”
After a morning session at St. Michael Parish in Olympia that included Mass celebrated by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, attendees broke into groups to visit their legislators on the Capitol campus during the afternoon. Each group asked their legislators for support on four specific issues — human trafficking, economic justice, health care and housing (see sidebar).
Vicki Valley, who attends St. Anne Parish in Seattle, is among those who have been helped by the state’s Housing and Essential Needs program, which provides rent and utility assistance.
At the morning session, Valley’s voice broke as she told her story to those gathered: She fell 15 feet off a dump truck and broke her neck, making her unable to work. A year ago, she was so depressed that she wanted to die, and was admitted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. There, Valley discovered she was eligible for the state assistance program. “It changed my life,” she said.
The program enabled her to move into her own home, and she became a seamstress. Now she teaches arts and crafts at Harborview and is helping the homeless learn craft skills they will display a Seattle festival. “I learned how to believe in myself and am so thankful,” Valley said.
In the afternoon, students from Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien met with 34th District Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island), asking her to support a bill to provide weatherization for low-income housing. “Everyone should have a warm, secure home,” Nelson told the students. “I’m going to continue to champion it.” Nelson also told the group she supports putting more money into treating mental illness and fighting human trafficking.
At the office of 42nd District Rep. Luanne Van Werven (R-Lynden), Father Scott Connolly pushed for stronger laws against human trafficking. Father Connolly, pastor of Assumption Parish in Bellingham, told the story of a woman in his parish who came here from the Philippines and was being abused. He urged the lawmaker to support a bill requiring signs in public restrooms with a phone number for victims to call, to “help people get the help they need,” he said.
Oscar Gonzalez, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Vancouver, took time off from his work at the Clark County Jail to urge 18th District Rep. Brandon Vick (R-Felida) to provide more money for job training that he said would help inmates with mental health issues. “The jail has become the second hospital for mental problems,” Gonzalez said. “I speak for hundreds of people in my town.”
In the afternoon, Valley and her group met with 36th District Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle), where she shared her story. “I was on the street,” Valley told him. “These folks saw something in me. I’m a success story.”
Carlyle said he agrees that more funding is needed for the Housing Trust Fund that helps low-and moderate-income people obtain affordable housing, and encouraged the group to continue advocating. “You need to speak out,” he said. “We need your voices on all fronts.”
Held annually, Catholic Advocacy Day is sponsored by the Intercommunity Peace & Justice Center, the Washington State Catholic Conference, Catholic Community/Housing Services, the Archdiocese of Seattle, the archdiocese’s Pierce County Deanery and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Here’s a look at the issues and bills Catholic Advocacy Day participants asked their legislators to support:
Human trafficking: A bill establishing a work group to study the prosecution of juveniles for prostitution offenses and to research barriers to providing them services. Status: Passed by the House of Representatives, now in the Senate. Another bill would establish a website and a clearing house for human trafficking issues and require businesses to post signs in public bathrooms listing numbers victims could call. Status: Passed by the Senate, now in the House.
Economic Justice: A bill increasing to 24 months the length of time needy families could receive vocational training. Status: Passed by the House, now in the Senate. An increase in the Housing and Essential Needs program that helps the needy with rent and utilities.
Health care: More money to treat the mentally ill and ensure appropriate care for the mentally ill in hospitals and jails.
Housing: Increasing the Housing Trust Fund by $100 million to help low- and moderate-income people obtain affordable homes. A bill to provide weatherization for low-income housing. Status: Passed by the House, now in the Senate.