Private company sought to clean up homeless camps in Olympia

Olympia local resident Jim Rainwood documents the homeless camps and debris March 3 along the Olympia Woodland Trail. He provides information from his monthly treks to the city code enforcement staff.
Olympia local resident Jim Rainwood documents the homeless camps and debris March 3 along the Olympia Woodland Trail. He provides information from his monthly treks to the city code enforcement staff. Staff file, 2016

Citing concerns over health and safety, Olympia is seeking a private contractor to clean up homeless encampments in the city’s wooded areas.

The proposal comes after an unknown man slashed the tire of a city vehicle while a probation work crew — consisting of inmates and people doing community service — was clearing debris in September from a campsite near the Olympia Woodland Trail.

The tire incident prompted a closer review of the process behind the camp cleanups. City spokesperson Kellie Braseth said a main concern is the health hazard associated with debris such as dirty needles and human waste.

The proposal calls for a company that specializes in cleaning up encampments while using a trained staff and proper protective gear. The one-year “on-call” contract caps city spending at $299,000 and does not guarantee any work or specific cleanup sites for the company.

The deadline for applicants was Thursday, and the Olympia City Council is expected to approve a contract by Dec. 6.

Braseth said the city has a duty to monitor public spaces and notify private property owners of any code violations. Another goal is to minimize the probation work crews’ exposure to health hazards.

“We don’t target homeless encampments. We don’t sweep them,” she said. “When a camp triggers a public health and safety concern, the city has a responsibility to act.”

Current procedures for camp cleanups will remain in place. Upon receiving notice, campers will continue to have 72 hours to vacate their sites.

Anyone who cleans a campsite is required to tag and deliver any items of value to the Olympia Police Department headquarters, where campers can claim their belongings within 60 days. Examples of these types of items include wallets, tents, clothes, sleeping bags, backpacks, medical records and identification.

Olympia resident Jim Rainwood has been tracking encampments and debris along the Woodland Trail since 2013. He sends the reports to city staff and posts his findings on YouTube.

To ensure personal safety, Rainwood said he always hikes the woods with a companion. He has observed that many people living in the woods — which he likens to a miniature version of The Jungle in Seattle — are dealing with mental health issues, drug addiction or outstanding warrants.

“I hand out trash bags. That’s my ice breaker,” said Rainwood, noting a mix of temperaments among people he has met at the sites. “I’ve been asked to leave by homeless campers several times.”

Rainwood cited a report that the city has disposed of nearly 1,200 cubic yards of waste from campsites. That’s the equivalent of emptying 30 giant dumpsters that can hold 40 cubic yards each. Any debris that’s not cleaned up eventually gets covered in leaves and becomes a layer, he said.

But the problem with homeless encampments goes beyond garbage.

“The best thing we can do is move people into housing,” he said, “and make it clear that the woods is not where you want to go.”

Just Housing, an activist group that’s raising awareness about low-rent housing options in the area, is calling on the city to allow camping on public land. Co-organizer Tyler Gundel said social service agencies end up resupplying homeless campers with the same items that are thrown away during camp cleanups.

“No matter how many times you sweep camps, they’re still going to be there. People don’t have another place to go,” said Gundel, adding that many people camp in the woods because the shelters are full. “They need a place to sleep and rest. They have to go somewhere.”

Homeless encampments have been an issue in Seattle, which recently announced a $7.7 million interim action plan to create more shelter space along with four new authorized encampments. The plan also calls for revising cleanup protocols for homeless encampments as part of Seattle’s Pathways Home program, which includes an outreach strategy for connecting the unsheltered homeless population with safe permanent housing. Seattle already has three city-sanctioned encampments for the homeless.

According to an October memo by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, the four new encampments will serve about 200 people starting in December. Two of the new encampments will accept people with chronic substance abuse or mental illness — two conditions that could keep them out of traditional indoor shelters.

Cleaning homeless encampments can lead to legal issues. In September, a federal judge ruled that Clark County’s work crews had violated the rights of several homeless residents by throwing away their belongings during encampment cleanups between 2012 and 2014.

The crews had been directed to immediately clean up any abandoned camps, or to give a one-hour notice to residents at occupied camps before clearing those sites. According to reports, the crews were cleaning up sites regardless of whether they had been abandoned. Following a lawsuit by homeless residents whose personal property was seized, the county conducted training for its work crews to ensure that such property is properly identified.