Downtown’s rapidly growing tent cities may prompt Olympia to designate camping sites

Officials in Olympia say they are considering designating camping sites for homeless people after 250 tents appeared across downtown in the past two months.

Most of the tents are clustered in and around city-owned parking lots on Franklin Street Northeast. City Manager Steve Hall called it an “unprecedented concentration” of homeless people in downtown Olympia.

“Every city is afraid they are the magnet drawing folks in. ..,” he said. “What we have now in downtown is unacceptable.”

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Hall said staff is considering designating sites that could include garbage pickup and restrooms. There was no talk of when this could happen or how much it would cost the city.

Hall said after the meeting that staff is looking at opening as many as three sites, either on city-owned property or leased property. One challenge has been finding locations that would not hurt neighbors or nearby businesses, he said.

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The proposal is the latest in the city’s evolving response to homelessness. Since May, the City Council has declared a public health emergency, approved funding to expand shelter capacity and is preparing to open a tiny home village on a city-owned lot near Plum Street Southeast on the edge of downtown.

Enforcement of the city’s ban on camping on city-owned property in downtown has been on hold since last month. That’s when a federal appeals court ruled on a case challenging a Boise, Idaho anti-camping ordinance. It said cities can’t prosecute people for sleeping on public property when they have nowhere else to go.

Olympia officials had been preparing to clear some of the downtown camps prior to the ruling.

Tye Gundel, co-founder of Just Housing, a local homeless advocacy group, said she welcomed the proposal to designate camping sites but urged the city to open many such sites to avoid overcrowding.

“Is our intention to pursue a path that will simply just protect our city from potential litigation?” she asked. “Or do we want to pursue a path that has more promise to truly improve the lives” of homeless people and neighbors?

An expanding sea of tents has appeared in the open lot along Olympia’s Franklin. St. near the Intercity Transit Center. Photo taken Oct 17,2018 Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian

The Plum Street village is scheduled to open in December. Officials have said that it will have on-site security, case managers to connect residents with permanent housing and a neighborhood advisory board to weigh in on operations.

Those plans have not stopped some from raising concerns about safety. At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, parents of students at the nearby St. Michael Parish School said they worry about the presence of drugs, weapons and sex offenders at the tiny home village.

Abby Spegman: 360-704-6869
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