Woodland activist patrols homeless camps

Since the city doesn’t have the resources to monitor them, Jim Rainwood routinely checks campsites along the trail

ahobbs@theolympian.comApril 7, 2014 

Concerned about sanitation and safety, Olympia resident Jim Rainwood has been documenting campsites used by homeless people along the Woodland Trail.

Apparently, the city is paying attention. Rainwood sends his reports to Olympia’s code enforcement officers, and several times a year, city staff will join him on a hike through the woods.

“We go to places I think need to be cleaned,” said Rainwood, pleased that his surveys are working. “I get to demonstrate what ‘clean’ looks like.”

Rainwood has a personal connection to the Woodland Trail, a project he helped pioneer in the early 1990s with his wife, Carol. Starting at the trailhead at Eastside Street and Wheeler Avenue last week, Rainwood made his usual rounds to nearly 20 sites. He photographs each area, then compares the photos with previous findings to see if anything has changed. A campsite that was clear the month before, for example, might be cluttered with new debris upon Rainwood’s next visit, or vice-versa.

Aside from an occasional peek-a-boo view of nearby houses, most homeless campsites along the Woodland Trail are tucked deep enough in the woods to stay under the public’s radar. Noise from the freeway is among the few reminders of the urban surroundings.

Some sites along the trail contained freshly dug holes next to mounds of dirt. Rainwood assumes the holes serve as fire pits or even toilets. Another site contained remnants of a staircase leading to a flat patch of land littered with clothing and food wrappers – leftovers of an elaborate campsite that once occupied the area, he said.

Surrounded by blackberry bushes and moss-coated trees, another garbage-filled site down the road sported a soiled pair of shoes that would fit a child. At another stop, Rainwood photographed a clearing in the woods where volunteers from the Touchstone Group Home once hauled away 40 bags of garbage and a king-size bed with double box springs, he said. The site is still dotted with cigarette butts and plastic wrappers.

Rainwood found just one tent during the hike, located at the last campsite he visited that day.

“The tent wasn’t there a month ago,” he said.

Chris Grabowski, Olympia code enforcement officer, said the city relies on residents to report campsites and any related problems. Based on information from Rainwood’s surveys, the city can send probation work crews to clean up garbage, Grabowski said.

“We certainly don’t have the manpower in code enforcement to be out in the woods and on the trails,” Grabowski said, adding that Rainwood’s efforts are “very helpful.”

Accompanied by police, code enforcement will inform any campers that they are trespassing and need to leave within 48 to 72 hours. Grabowski said property owners have given permission to the city to remove trespassers. In 2010, several campers along the Woodland Trail were evicted by the city after complaints from neighbors about garbage and drug abuse.

Homeless campsites have raised public safety concerns in other parts of the city. In 2012, a rash of property crimes in Olympia’s Wildwood neighborhood had called attention to a campsite that had otherwise been a non-issue. Police had linked several car prowls and residential burglaries to a campsite in the woods near Capitol Boulevard and O’Farrell Avenue.

Janae Huber, president of the Wildwood Neighborhood Association, said there were few problems from that campsite before the summer of 2012, and there have been few problems since. She said the breakup of the homeless camp was unfortunate for the people who lived there without causing any trouble.

“There are criminals, and there are homeless people. (They) need to be separated and not talked about as if they’re one and the same,” said Huber, noting that she recently forwarded a complaint to the city about litter from new campers. “Ultimately, I think what neighbors care about most is that there’s not crime in the neighborhood and that they’re safe.”

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 ahobbs@theolympian.com

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