From living in a tent in his friend’s backyard in Westport, to having the full attention of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders while on a panel focusing on poverty around the country, Chris Olive has come a long way in the past year. He and four others were flown to Washington, D.C., last month, where he told his story about struggling with addiction and homelessness.
“My overall goal was to be a voice for people who can’t necessarily be heard on a national level,” said Olive, 33. “To bring education around that issue of addiction — that it doesn’t matter what demographic you come from, your background, how you were brought up and how much money you have. These issues don’t discriminate. Anybody can be suffering from them.”
The forum was set up by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and convened by Sen. Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). The campaign is led by Rev. Liz Theoharis and Rev. William Barber, who visited Aberdeen in May. They want to combat nationwide poverty and unite poor people in an effort inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 effort that bore the same name.
When Barber toured the homeless camps along the Chehalis River in Aberdeen during his visit, he said he wanted to bring someone from Grays Harbor when he met with U.S. senators for a forum, and Olive was picked for his story of recovery from opioid addiction and homelessness to now being clean and in stable housing.
Olive said he realized telling his story wouldn’t necessarily lead to massive policy changes, but he hopes the senators and online listeners will be influenced by hearing it.
“Even if it’s only one person who watched the live stream on Senator Warren’s page and goes and influences someone else, that’s a win in my book,” said Olive, who was shown on the campaign’s Facebook stream of the forum.
In his statement he stressed a need for more widespread education concerning addiction, and said he feels ordinances like Aberdeen’s decision to ban daytime sitting on downtown sidewalks is “nothing more than a poorly-veiled attempt to criminalize homelessness.”
But it may be Olive’s story — coming from the military, to having addiction issues, and being homeless — that left the biggest lasting impact on lawmakers at the forum.
From hard beginnings
Upon graduating from Ocosta High School in 2002, Olive decided to join the U.S. Air Force at age 18 because he couldn’t afford college. He was a skilled wrestler in high school, and hoped to continue in the Air Force, but couldn’t because he wasn’t stationed at a base with a wrestling program.
He was an aircraft electrician at Luke Air Force Base for four years, fixing aircraft for training pilots. Up until then he was clean, but after being diagnosed with pancreatitis near the end of his service, Olive was prescribed opioid pills, he said.
After being medically discharged and returning to Westport in 2007, Olive worked a few freelance electrician jobs. But he said it was a gradual slide from using Oxycodone as intended to eventually abusing them. He believes he was overprescribed by local physicians.
“I’m not a doctor, but I was definitely prescribed and given a lot (of pills),” said Olive. “I took them as prescribed at first, then slowly moved into taking them when I didn’t really need them, then taking them whenever, and then abuse.”
Two years later, Olive began using heroin, and his problems began mounting. He would lose jobs, his house, and needed to sell his car and other possessions to pay for pills.
Sometimes Olive would travel to the Tacoma Vet Center where they provide veterans with free pills, but he said waiting times were brutally long.
Throughout the past decade he was homeless off and on, couch surfing with friends, and renting places for a few months before being homeless again.
From July to November 2017, Olive was living in a tent in his friend’s backyard. He said this was when his problems with addiction were the worst.
He would get food from the food bank in Westport twice a month, and would sometimes stay at the Chaplains on the Harbor Episcopal church that has a shelter.
Olive was arrested last November for involvement in a burglary incident, and while in jail he went through detox to get over his addiction. He noted that there isn’t really any medicine offered by the jail during the painful process of getting over withdrawal.
“They give you a bottle of juice when they have time so you don’t dehydrate,” he said.
Since January when he was released from jail, Olive said he has been totally clean and now lives in a clean and sober house in Hoquiam. He also has a full time job now working at Harbor Roots Farm, which is willing to employ people who have recently been in jail or have drug issues, helping them back on their feet.
A spokesperson for change
He had some people proofread it, but Olive’s speech heard by senators was written completely by himself. In it, he advocated for places such as Grays Harbor to put more funding into treatment facilities and affordable housing and said that he believes local health organizations have the funding but need to commit to helping those struggling as he did.
“I can only begin to imagine the lives that might have been saved or could be saved if this money were used for things that it is already authorized to be used for,” read Olive. “An inpatient treatment facility, a community center, affordable housing and rental assistance, to name a few.”
When Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, responded to Barber, Olive and the others from the campaign at the forum in D.C., he commented that hearing stories like Olive’s resonated with them.
“There was a time when we had regular hearings with people like yourselves coming to talk to us,” said Durbin at the forum. “It’s now very rare that we actually hear from people across the U.S. about the struggles they have. That you would come and set up this forum, is refreshing, and it gives me some hope. I hope it gives you hope that there are people listening up here who are determined to make a difference.”