Camp Quixote seeks to establish roots

Thurston county: Roaming camp for homeless people pursues permanent site so they’ll have more stability and be able to grow their own gardens

June 27, 2010 

OLYMPIA - Camp Quixote, the three-year-old tent city for homeless people that moves every 90 days from church property to church property, is on a quixotic quest for a permanent site.

The vision is to build 30 one-room cottages, with a central building for laundry, showers and meetings, said Jill Severn of the Panza board, the nonprofit that supports the camp. Dubbed Quixote Village, it would be eco-friendly, with community gardens and plenty of trees.

“We like to point out that the people who live in Camp Quixote already have the smallest carbon footprint in town,” Severn said of the camp, which accommodates up to 30 people.

That vision has gained the support of the Thurston County Commission and the Olympia City Council. Last week, the council agreed to have its staff study finding a permanent site for the camp.

“I want to embrace this vision,” said Councilwoman Rhenda Strub, who has advocated for a permanent site for the camp.

The county commission even offered a piece of property near Carpenter Road and Martin Way. But it likely won’t work, because it’s near the firing range for the City of Olympia police department.

Camp residents say a permanent camp would give them stability. It would mean they could grow their own food. The camp has already begun to give them hope.

“Once you have a place where you’re going to lay your head every night, everything comes into focus,” said Brenda Brooks, 35. She came to the camp after going through a divorce, being hospitalized for mental illness and losing her three children.

Supporters face many hurdles to creating a permanent camp. For starters, there’s the land. Zoning regulations and building codes might have to be adjusted to allow such housing. Funding could be an issue because local and federal grants are geared toward building permanent housing for the homeless – not camps.

There’s also no clear model for this type of camp. Perhaps the most similar example is Dignity Village, about an acre-size tent city in Portland with about 60 residents, some of whom live in rudimentary cabins. It is allowed on city property near Portland International Airport, but only under lease, so there’s no guarantee it’s permanent.

But Camp Quixote has already defied the odds. Pursuing a permanent site for the encampment is a complete change in thought for local leaders, who initially tried to shut it down.

Camp Quixote began Feb. 1, 2007, on a small, city-owned lot at State Avenue and Columbia Street in downtown Olympia. The camp began as a protest of the city’s Pedestrian Interference Ordinance, which went into effect that day. The measure made it a misdemeanor to sit, lie down, sell things or ask for money within 6 feet of the edge of a building downtown during certain hours, with limited exceptions.

After city leaders repeatedly demanded the camp be torn down, police moved in eight days later and evicted the campers. The Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation offered sanctuary for the campers on a site it owns at 2409 Division St. N.W.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” said the Rev. Arthur Vaeni, minister of the congregation. “We were simply responding to the need and the moment.”

Eventually, city leaders came around to the idea of a temporary encampment. Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater have passed ordinances that recognize encampments for 90 days in one place, once a year. Thurston County is considering its own ordinance that would give camps up to six months in one place. The ordinance could be adopted in mid- to late July, said Jeremy Davis, associate planner for the county.

The camp has moved every three months since, to churches including United Churches, St. John’s Episcopal Church and First Christian Church. But the list of churches willing to take on the camp hasn’t grown, so the same churches are hosting the camp over and over. The camp is now at the Unitarian property for the third time. And campers are growing weary of having to constantly move.

“It won’t survive in this form, and it hasn’t adequately served the needs of the residents,” Vaeni said.

As the camp has evolved, it has developed some ground rules. No drugs or alcohol are allowed in the camp. No violence, either. Prospective residents must pass a background check to ensure they aren’t sex offenders or the subject of outstanding warrants. Children can’t be residents of the camp.

All residents are charged $15 monthly dues, mostly to pay for paper products in the camp, though there are exceptions for people with no money.

The faith community that hosts the camp provides two volunteers to take shifts watching over the camp and tending to residents’ needs, 24 hours a day.

Severn hopes to extend those services. The organization recently received a $50,000 grant from the Thurston County Home Consortium to provide case management – a social worker to help campers receive social services.

Severn acknowledges the challenge ahead but says there’s one way for everything to fall into place.

“It’s all about political will,” she said.

Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869

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