Community shows resounding support for Camp Quixote

August 21, 2011 

Camp Quixote, Olympia’s highly successful homeless encampment, is about to enter a well-earned new phase of its history – a permanent home.

More than 100 people attended the Olympia City Council meeting last Monday to testify in support of creating a permanent village for the homeless on Olympia’s west side. The outpouring of support is a tribute to the effectiveness of Camp Quixote. The positive turnout is a vote of confidence by the community.

Homelessness in South Sound, especially in this economy, is a sad reality. Social service advocates say the number of men, women and children who are living without a permanent roof over their heads is increasing. Job losses, mortgage foreclosures and illness are frequent contributors to the growing homeless population.

While some people are able to take up temporary residence with friends or family members, and while many teens “couch surf” from one friend’s sofa to the next, many people simply have no family or friends to turn to in their time of need.

South Sound’s shelters, especially for women and children, are filled to capacity. Some make their way to the woods where they eke out a living in a tent or under a tarp. Others sleep in and live out of their vehicle. Still others spend their nights in downtown alleys or in an alcove.

It’s a regrettable statement that in this, the richest nation on the planet, there are people who sometimes because of poor choices, but other times through no fault of their own, find themselves homeless and destitute.

The community’s awakening to the homeless situation came early in 2007 when Camp Quixote began as an illegal encampment on city property near State and Columbia streets. The camp spontaneously came together as a means of protesting the city’s then-new Pedestrian Interference Ordinance, which prohibits sitting on portions of downtown sidewalks.

Olympia police were on the verge of forcefully evicting camp residents when the good folks at Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation offered to take the camp to their west side church property. Camp Quixote quickly evolved into a place for homeless residents to find safety and survive until they could get back on their feet.

Local government officials responded with ordinances that allow the homeless encampment to stay in one location for at least 90 days. The ordinances call for broad public notification of each camp move. A number of Olympia church congregations stepped forward to take turns hosing Camp Quixote – United Churches of Olympia, St. John’s Episcopal Church, First United Methodist Church and First Christian Church, etc.

Police officers say the homeless encampment has not generated emergency calls. The campers themselves say they are much more safe than living under an overpass or in the woods. A large number of homeless individuals have left Camp Quixote over the last four years, moving into transitional and eventually permanent housing. They are the true success stories.

The self-governing camp has also booted out some residents for failure to follow camp rules.

The moves every 90 days have put a lot of stress on the host churches and the camp residents, who have long dreamed of a more permanent encampment. They asked for a permanent location where there would be a central community building with kitchen, laundry and shower facilities with space for homeless community meetings. That central building would be surrounded by perhaps 30 one-room cottages.

Thurston County commissioners have offered to locate the village on 1.6 acres of county property on Mottman Road west of R.W. Johnson Boulevard.

The board of Panza, a nonprofit that runs Camp Quixote, wants the permanent site to be eco-friendly with a community garden and lots of trees.

Because the land is in the city of Olympia, the Olympia City Council ultimately will have to rezone the site, which is now zoned light industrial. The council didn’t take action last Monday but may make a decision about the rezoning next month.

Fewer than 10 people spoke in opposition. Many said they have a business in the industrial park across the street. They questioned whether the site was appropriate, with the noise of tractor-trailers and industrial uses going on 24 hours a day.

County Commissioners Karen Valenzuela and Cathy Wolfe spoke in favor.

“Commissioners began this journey because citizens brought the idea to us,” Valenzuela said. “We hope that you will stay in this partnership with us and help bring this wonderful vision to fruition.”

The Olympia Planning Commission voted 8-3 in June to recommend the village be allowed after an earlier public hearing in which more than 100 people showed up, mostly to express support.

By almost every measure, Camp Quixote has been a success for the residents, for public safety and for the community as a whole. Establishing a permanent encampment at Mottman makes sense and should be ratified by the City Council.

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