She’s 28, she goes by the name “Charlie,” and she and her husband, along with their four children, ages 2 to 7, are living out of a van in northeast Lacey. They both work, but they say they still have been homeless since October 2016.
They have been camping in northeast Lacey this past week, but previously stayed in a grocery store parking lot until they were told to leave.
“It’s unfortunate,” she said about a recent Lacey City Council proposal to ban camping on public property. “We’re not ruffians, we’re literally a family. We’re just trying to keep going.”
She said her children have food and clean clothes. “We have everything we need except for an actual house,” she said.
“Charlie” declined to share her real name with The Olympian, saying that given her situation, she is worried about the state taking her children away from her.
She said she and her husband both work for a rehab center she wouldn’t name.
“I am not an addict,” she quickly added.
If Lacey City Council approves a camping ban, it likely would affect people like Charlie and her family. To what extent is not clear, although the proposed ordinance does contain language that could result in a fine or jail time.
That proposal, which was first heard by a council general government committee and then forwarded to the larger council, was set to be voted on two weeks ago. But a large gathering of people showed up to contest the proposal and the council set the ordinance aside so it could be discussed further.
City officials said Thursday said they are not unsympathetic to issues of poverty. City Manager Scott Spence said the city has awarded community development block grants to address the need for food and housing. The city also has agreed to waive building permit fees for South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity, a group known for getting those with lower incomes into homes.
But the fact remains: There is no city law to address camping on public property.
“We have no authority for camping on public property,” Lacey Police Chief Dusty Pierpoint said, adding that most of it is addressed through voluntary compliance.
The city has encountered some issues that needed to be addressed.
Spence said that for the last three or four months, a person was living out of a vehicle in the parking lots near City Hall and Lacey Timberland Library, and leaving behind human excrement. People also have been camping in northeast Lacey, Woodland Square Loop, and in a tunnel that runs underneath Sleater-Kinney road near Interstate 5. Human waste has been found there, too, Pierpoint said.
People have complained to the city, Spence said.
“We’re trying to respond to business owners and our own personal concerns,” he said.
A boat or trailer can’t be parked on a Lacey street for more than 24 hours, yet there’s nothing to address living out of a vehicle. Living in an RV is not compatible with a neighborhood or a business district because there are unintended consequences, Spence said.
The city of Seattle currently is dealing with a similar issue, and Olympia has weighed or approved similar ordinances over the years.
Chief Pierpoint added that even if the ordinance is approved, his officers will continue to work with people rather than arrest them. He said he views some of the more stringent aspects of the proposed ordinance as a “last resort.”
Steve Ells, 71, of Spokane is living in northeast Lacey in his RV. Like Charlie, he says he was previously in a grocery store parking lot until he was told to leave. He said he doesn’t earn enough from Social Security to live in a house, so he lives in his RV, splitting his time between Washington state and Arizona.
After learning about Lacey’s proposal, Ells said he can’t understand why there’s such prejudice against people who don’t live in a house.
“We should have a right to be anywhere,” he said.
Ells said he keeps a tidy RV and spends money in Lacey. He also hopes to come back every year.
Deputy Mayor Cynthia Pratt, who sits on the general government committee, said committee members did not view the proposed camping ordinance as a homelessness issue. However, she now realizes the city needs to come up with some solutions.
“We need to take our time and do it correctly rather than jump into it,” she said. “It’s obviously a much bigger issue than we thought.”