Dozens blast Lacey City Council over proposed ‘camping’ ban ordinance

A bouquet of flowers, meant to represent those who have died living on the streets, was placed on the floor before Lacey City Council Thursday night.
A bouquet of flowers, meant to represent those who have died living on the streets, was placed on the floor before Lacey City Council Thursday night. rboone@theolympian.com

More than 20 people blasted the Lacey City Council on Thursday night for considering a proposed ordinance that would ban camping in public places in the city.

Under the proposal, if police officers determined the “campers” were homeless, they could either provide directions or one-time transportation to a shelter. The officer also would have the authority to issue a misdemeanor citation.

A conviction could result in a fine of as much as $1,000, or 90 days in jail, or both, according to the proposal. If no shelter space was available, a citation would not be issued.

But just as the crowded meeting was about to begin, Lacey Mayor Andy Ryder announced he was “tabling” the ordinance so the council could discuss it at a future work session. By doing so, it allowed public comment to be heard Thursday night because the council typically does not allow public comment on items already on the agenda.

Before getting to the speakers, Ryder asked City Attorney Dave Schneider to explain the proposed ordinance.

Schneider said the city’s existing laws have very little regulation of camping, unlike in other jurisdictions, including Olympia.

He said city staff raised health and safety concerns to a council committee and then the issue was forwarded to the larger council.

“It does not address homelessness,” he said about the ordinance. “It’s not intended to provide a solution, or a fix to homelessness.”

He also emphasized that enforcement action would not be taken against violators, if shelter space wasn’t available.

But those attending the meeting didn’t believe the city’s explanation. The homeless and homeless advocates who attended say they believe the ordinance was specifically directed at those without shelter.

“You’re claiming this doesn’t target homeless people?” said James Blair of Yelm, who said he had once lived out of his truck for nine months. “That’s the only people this is targeting.”

“You should be ashamed,” he said.

Eric Miller of Tenino said he was homeless growing up in Lacey, yet still found success in school. If the ordinance had been in place then, it might have been a different story for him.

“It is our duty to find ways to help the most vulnerable, not oppress the most vulnerable,” he said.

Chelsea Rustad of Tumwater asked the council whether they really thought people were camping for fun in Lacey.

“It seems gauche,” she said. “We know better. We know that they are there because they don’t have shelter.”

Tye Gundel of Just Housing, a homeless advocacy group that has lobbied the Olympia City Council on issues affecting the homeless, said Lacey’s ordinance wouldn’t change the fact that many people are sleeping outdoors with nowhere to go.

“They have no other option but to camp,” she said.

Krista Koller took issue with the city’s position that in the Lacey-Olympia-Tumwater area, several homeless shelters are available. Koller, who manages Interfaith Works’ overnight emergency shelter, said they have 42 beds and turn away an average of eight people every night.

Lacey City Council candidates Madeline Goodwin, Robert Motzer and Carolyn Cox spoke out against the proposal.

“I urge the council to set aside the ordinance,” Cox said. “Let’s all work on a regional approach to getting people housed and in safe places.”

There was one voice of support for the city’s proposal.

A man who identified himself as “C Davis” of Olympia — and who described homelessness in downtown Olympia as “horrible” and “out of control” — applauded the council for putting the proposal out there.

“The purpose of city government is to deal with city issues,” he said. “It is not to provide people with housing or food or clothing.”