Homeless camp near neighborhood leaves mess for property owner

OlympianSeptember 12, 2013 

Seth Hutt, a local resident and Bigelow Springs Park steward, walks through an apparently abandoned homeless encampment off of Bigelow Ave. Sept. 10th.

BY STEVE BLOOM

Until the end of July, a wooded lot behind Bigelow Springs Park off a dirt pathway where children ride their bikes to Roosevelt Elementary School was the site of what is now an abandoned, garbage-strewn homeless encampment.

All that’s left now is the garbage — including tarps, a tent, mountains of clothes, empty liquor bottles and evidence of drug use, including a baggie of pills. The abandoned camp is located on private property, and the city has asked the owners, the East Bay Harbor Condominium Association, to clear out the garbage. Olympia Code Enforcement Officer Chris Grabowski estimates it will cost at least $2,000 to complete the cleanup.

“It’s a big job, and there are some potential biohazards there,” he said.

Neighborhood resident and Bigelow Springs Park steward Seth Hutt said he had no idea the pathway near his house led to the camp, but he believes it explains a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood over the summer — including a break-in of his vehicle while it was parked in his driveway. He said he saw homeless people walking to and from the pathway in the woods, but he assumed they were just using the area to drink, not as a temporary home.

The encampment is similar to others across Olympia. Like camps on Olympia’s west side and in the South Capitol neighborhood, obvious efforts were made by its occupants to keep it hidden from neighboring property owners.

Grabowski said he got a complaint from a resident about the camp over the summer, and at the end of July, he and two Olympia police officers notified a woman who lived there that they could not camp at the site. Although there is plenty of trash left at the site, he said it now is unoccupied.

The camp site lies at the bottom of a 20-foot embankment, and travelers have to follow a winding dirt pathway just to reach the small city of tarps hung carefully from tree branches. Wooden boards and blankets tile the living areas, where books, sleeping bags and other items were left.

Evidence of hard times are not in short supply at the encampment. Along with the empty liquor and beer containers, two knives, a hypodermic needle and a small baggie of white pills were found at the site. Clothes were everywhere, piled on the ground and hanging from tree branches.

Hutt said he is eager to have the mess cleaned up. He also said he’s angry that no one from the city sent out a general notice to the neighborhood over the summer as a warning that the camp was there.

“It makes me question my safety and my children’s safety with this being in a residential area,” he said. “This is unacceptable.”

Wednesday, East Bay Condominium Association president Helga Morgenstern confirmed that Olympia’s code enforcement had told her that the association is responsible for cleaning the encampment, because it is located on property it owns. Prior to the notification, no one from the condominiums had any idea that it was there. She said she visited the site Tuesday with code enforcement officials, and found a large garbage bag containing crowbars and other burglary tools.

She said the bill to clean up the camp ultimately will be footed by dues-paying members of the association.

“It’s a bloody mess,” she said. “It’s quite a huge mess.”

Hutt said he looks at the homeless encampment behind Bigelow Springs Park as evidence of why people who live and work on the east side do not want a “low barrier” shelter in their neighborhood.

Interfaith Works, a group of local churches, was planning a 40-bed shelter. A proposed site on 10th Avenue prompted stiff opposition from neighbors and a site has not been determined. In general, “low-barrier” homeless shelters try to reduce the barriers that commonly keep homeless people from staying in a shelter. That can mean removing the restrictions involving criminal records, pets or children.

The exact definitions of who will, and will not be allowed in Olympia’s proposed “low barrier” shelter have not been decided. No matter — many on Olympia’s east side have already said they don’t want it in their neighborhood. On Tuesday, Hutt pointed to the mess behind Bigelow Springs Park and said he believes a “low barrier” shelter will lead to more, not fewer, outdoor camps in his neighborhood.

“If a low barrier shelter is built (on the east side), these people would not stop living here and go live there,” Hutt said.

Local homeless advocate Rob Richards, who works at the Capital Clubhouse Recovery Center, disagreed with Hutt. Richards said studies show that a low barrier shelter would not attract more homeless people to live on the streets in a given neighborhood. On the contrary, the homeless would access the services a low barrier shelter provides and get off the streets to have somewhere warm to sleep at night, he said.

“That theory doesn’t hold water at the end of the day,” Richards said.

Richards emphasized during an interview Tuesday that he supports putting a low-barrier homeless shelter in Olympia, but not on the east side. He said a low-barrier shelter downtown would best serve the city’s at-risk homeless population.

On Wednesday, Grabowski said the city routinely investigates shelters like the one behind Bigelow Springs Park. He added that after the city clears out a homeless encampment, its occupants typically move somewhere else in the city.

Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5445
jpawloski@theolympian.com

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