A group of demonstrators who camped in downtown Olympia overnight to call attention to the needs of the homeless were dispersed without incident Monday, according to police and organizers.
The group set up camp alongside the former Schoenfeld furniture building that faces Capitol Way. Organized by Just Housing, a homeless advocacy group recently known for demonstrating at the Heritage Park bathrooms, the group wanted to call attention to the lack of places for the homeless to camp.
“We are asking that the city change this by designating safe and legal places for people to camp,” the group said in a news release Sunday.
They gathered about 6 p.m. Sunday, Just Housing co-founder Tyler Gundel said. Their numbers grew to about 55, she said, then fell to about 25 by early Monday. About 11:30 a.m. Monday, Olympia police arrived, read aloud a trespass order, and asked them to leave, giving them about 15 minutes, Gundel said.
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She called the overnight demonstration a success.
“We came together to demonstrate and demand rights,” she said.
Gundel said the demonstration planned to move to City Hall late Monday.
Olympia police responded to the Schoenfeld site Sunday, but didn’t have the resources to make a number of arrests, Lt. Sam Costello said. They returned Monday with about 18 officers, including corrections staff and a vehicle to accommodate more than one arrest. The group was asked to leave because they were on private property, he said.
The former Schoenfeld building is owned by Olympia Federal Savings.
Just Housing said they were demonstrating in response to what they called the recent sweeps of encampments under the Fourth Avenue Bridge and in west Olympia behind the Haggen store.
But city of Olympia spokeswoman Kellie Purce Braseth took issue with the word “sweep.” She said the city does not target encampments. Instead, they are evaluated under a set of criteria before the city initiates a cleanup of the site. The criteria: conflict with public use, and safety and health concerns, such as the presence of garbage, human feces or hypodermic needles.
If the encampment meets one of the criteria, residents are given three days’ notice about the cleanup and are notified about alternative services in the area, as well as that personal property will be tagged and held as found property by the police for 60 days. The property can be picked up for free during that time. If not, items of value are auctioned off. Those items with no value are thrown out, Braseth said.
She said that’s the process for all found property, not just personal property at a homeless encampment.
In the area behind Haggen, neighbors complained about garbage, and there was a fire that drew the city’s attention, Braseth said.
Neighbors also complained about noise, garbage and needles under the bridge. Some were building fires near underground natural gas lines and digging out the footings of the bridge, perhaps to escape the cold weather.