Camp may have home

Quixote: County property might be permanent site

November 28, 2010 

OLYMPIA - The Thurston County Commission has proposed using a piece of county property as a permanent site for Camp Quixote, an itinerant tent city for the homeless.

The 1.6-acre, county-owned site, on Mottman Road west of R.W. Johnson Boulevard, could accommodate the campers’ dream of a permanent village, said Jill Severn of the Panza Board, the nonprofit that oversees Camp Quixote.

The camp has a vision for its permanent site: 30 one-room cottages, with a central building for cooking, laundry, showers and meetings. It would be eco-friendly, with a community garden and plenty of trees.

Severn’s hope is that the village, thought to be the only one of its kind in the nation, could open before the end of 2011.

“It is our fervent hope that this is the last winter that Camp Quixote’s out in the cold,” she told the Olympia City Council on Tuesday.

Nothing can happen unless the council approves zoning to allow the camp on the site, which is now zoned light industrial. The city’s zoning codes have no category for a permanent village for the homeless.

“We need your cooperation in rezoning that piece of property,” County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela told the City Council.

The council moved to amend development regulations to allow for permanent homeless camps, subject to approval of a conditional-use permit. The process would involve public input, would be reviewed by the Olympia Planning Commission and ultimately would have to be approved by the City Council, said Keith Stahley, director of Community Planning and Development.

If that happens, Camp Quixote could apply for the permit for a permanent encampment as early as spring, Stahley said.

Last week’s weather offered plenty of motivation for the 20 or so Quixote residents to push for a permanent encampment. Snow and ice buffeted the camp, and First United Methodist Church of Olympia, which is hosting the camp on its property, allowed campers to sleep indoors. A couple of inches of snow, strong winds and temperatures dipping into the teens served as a reminder of how humble the camp remains.

It started 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 six feet of the edge of a building downtown during certain hours, with limited exceptions.

After city leaders repeatedly demanded that the camp be torn down, police moved in 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.

City leaders eventually softened their position on the camp and passed an ordinance allowing campers to stay at a church’s property for 90 days. The camp has moved every three months since, with its hosts including The United Churches, St. John’s Episcopal Church and First Christian Church.

The camp has put a lot of stress on the churches, Severn said. Other churches haven’t stepped up to play host to the camp. So the same churches take on the camp, in the same order, year after year.

And campers have grown weary of tearing down and setting up camp every 90 days. They want to grow their own food and feel a sense of stability.

“It’s a real burden,” said Bill Painter, a resident of the camp for about two years who is moving into permanent housing at the end of the month. “It’s become my quest to make sure this thing gets put together.”

Severn said it’s too soon to say how much it will cost, partly because they aren’t certain about the site. She hopes to have a fundraising campaign, and to find building suppliers that will give the camp a break on cost.

“We’re not looking for a handout,” said Tom Ready, a camper.

“We’re looking for a hand up that we can extend to others.”

Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869

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