Tony Pfeiffer, 52, looked around the vacant field that is going to be his new home. On one side is a warehouse; on the right is another warehouse with tractor-trailers. Across the street, it is the same.
In the middle will be 30 one-room cottages for the homeless and a central community building for showers and meetings. One of those cottages will be his.
“I’ve been homeless for about 14 years,” he said Thursday, “and this is a chance for me to get out of my rut and start a new life.”
Saturday marked the ceremonial groundbreaking of Quixote Village at 3350 Mottman Road SW, the permanent home of Camp Quixote, the itinerant tent camp that formed six years ago in downtown Olympia. Located on a vacant piece of industrial Thurston County property within the Olympia city limits, the village is the realization of a dream of Camp Quixote’s homeless residents, the church volunteers who lent support, and elected leaders who changed their minds and regulations to support the idea.
“We’ve been waiting for this day for quite a while,” said Kevin Johnson, a camp resident from the beginning.
TENTS TO COTTAGES
Camp Quixote takes its name from “Don Quixote,” the classic Spanish novel from Miguel de Cervantes. Camp residents govern themselves, but a nonprofit organization called Panza (named after Don Quixote’s fictional friend Sancho Panza) supports the camp and has led the project.
Jill Severn, a member of Panza, said the group plans to pick a contractor for the project June 18 and that construction will start by the end of the month. The plan is to open the camp in November, before the worst winter weather settles in.
Camp residents helped draw up the plan, with the assistance of Garner Miller of Olympia’s MSGS Architects, who donated some of his services. The cottages will face each other.
“It was all about the architecture of community and equality,” Severn said. Construction costs are estimated at $1.68 million.
Luxury, it is not. Each cottage will be 8 by 18 feet inside, with a small porch. A toilet, sink and heat are the main amenities — but for many, just a room with a window and a door that closes is something to aspire to.
A shallow retention pond will sit in the middle of the development, along with a 2,600-square-foot community building for showers and community meetings.
The design is unconventional. Asked why the group is not building a traditional apartment building, Severn said it’s because many of the group have mental illnesses. Having a space of their own is very important along with access to a larger community.
Funding came from a combination of government grants and private donations. Major donors include the state ($1.55 million), federal Housing and Urban Development dollars distributed by the county ($604,002) and county-distributed Home Consortium dollars ($170,000). The Nisqually Indian Tribe gave $40,000 and the Chehalis Tribe gave $7,000.
The camp will lease the county land for $1 per year; Severn said it’s a 40-year commitment.
She said all of the money for construction is in hand, but the nonprofit group she is part of still is raising money for operating costs, estimated at $240,000 per year. Camp residents will be asked to pay one-third of their income for rent. For some people, that will be nothing.
The Olympia City Council has supported the Quixote Village project and agreed to change its comprehensive plan to allow permanent homeless encampments last year. Thurston County is allowing its property to be used for the project.
A group of nearby landowners went to court in Lewis County to stop the project but failed last year. They questioned whether the industrially zoned site was appropriate.
HISTORY OF A DREAM
Camp Quixote has come a long way from its humble beginnings in February 2007 on a city-owned parking lot at State Avenue and Columbia Street. It began as a protest of the city’s Pedestrian Interference Ordinance, which made it a misdemeanor to sit, lie down, sell things or ask for money within 6 feet of the edge of a downtown building during certain hours, with limited exceptions. (Last year, the council made the whole sidewalk off-limits for sitting and lying between 7 a.m. and midnight.)
City leaders told campers to leave, and police evicted them eight days later. The Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation offered sanctuary for the campers on a site it owns at 2409 Division St. NW. That grew into a group of neighborhood churches, with its hosts including The United Churches, St. John’s Episcopal Church, First United Methodist Church of Olympia, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Olympia, Lacey Community Church and First Christian Church in Olympia.
Each church would take a turn hosting the camp, three months at first, then for six-month periods as government regulations changed. Churches provided volunteers, food and supplies. But campers grew weary of tearing down and setting up camp every few months.
The camp is now at the First Christian Church, where it usually rides out the winter. It is scheduled to move to Westminster Presbyterian at the end of the month, the last move before settling permanently at the Quixote Village site.
Though the Panza organization supports the camp, members of the camp lead it by consensus. The camp elects a president and vice president, and residents vote on whether to accept a new member into the camp, which tops out around 30 people.
Dues are $20 a month, if residents have the means to pay. A half-time social worker helps people in the camp get signed up for government benefits and social services and get into permanent housing. Volunteers back her up.
Severn describes a typical camp resident as “somebody who has an addiction and a mental illness and wants to get better.” She admits the camp is not all success stories, because it gives everybody a chance, “and when you give everybody a chance, you have a pretty large failure rate.”
Pfeiffer is looking for another chance. He dreams of going to school just up the street at South Puget Sound Community College. He wants to make dentures, mindful of his former longtime methamphetamine addiction that robbed him of his teeth. He said he’s clean, but he worries.
“I’m still scared,” he said. “I believe I’ll have one of these (cottages) when I’m sleeping in it at night.”Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869 firstname.lastname@example.org