As Olympia grapples with a homeless crisis downtown, an emerging homeless problem in northeast Lacey has acted as a reminder that the challenge of homelessness has a far wider reach.
Yet community reaction in Lacey has been just as polarized. There are those who want nothing to do with the homeless, and those who are concerned and want to get involved. It’s also a reminder that homelessness is a complex issue with no easy answers or solutions, despite citizen complaints to the contrary. Lacey officials say they are taking steps to help.
The debate was triggered by the recent clean up of two homeless camps in northeast Lacey off Willamette Drive at Borealis Court Northeast and Zenith Court Northeast. It caught the attention of residents and compelled some to come before Lacey City Council on Nov. 15 and Dec. 6.
Longtime Lacey resident Terry Johnson told the council in November the city needed to deal with the issue firmly and not enable a complete society.
“I’m not a very sympathetic or empathetic person when it comes to this type of thing,” he told the council. “These people aren’t contributing anything. All they are doing is taking and damaging.”
A different reaction played itself out in December. Resident Jenny Gessler said she, too, was concerned about the camps in Hawks Prairie.
“I’m not here to say, ‘not in my neighborhood,” she told the council, “because it (homelessness) happens everywhere and I don’t want to make it someone else’s problem. Please let us know what we can do.”
Johnson also returned to that December council meeting to thank the city for the clean up, although it wasn’t entirely a city issue. Both camps had occupied private property and were cleaned up by a contractor hired by the property owner.
Separately, other residents came forward and asked for a meeting with city officials.
A Wednesday meeting
Residents of Jubilee, the prominent 55-and-older community in Hawks Prairie, recently met with City Manager Scott Spence, interim police Chief Chris Ward, officer Jesse Hadley and council members Carolyn Cox and Michael Steadman to talk about homelessness in northeast Lacey. Steadman lives in Hawks Prairie.
Ward reflected on the idea of dealing with the homeless with a “firm hand” as suggested by Lacey resident Johnson.
“We’re not going to do that because that’s not our job,” he said. “We’re going to be compassionate and try to do what we can for people who are out there.”
Officer Hadley, who often works with the homeless, said he provides a list of social services that are available to them. Unless they are a danger to themselves or someone else, it is up to them to take advantage of those services. And every situation is different, he said. He recalled meeting with a homeless Vietnam veteran who declined those services. The veteran didn’t like being around people, didn’t like living inside and chose to live outside.
Hadley and Ward frequently had to remind the group that homelessness isn’t illegal and that those who find themselves homeless have rights that are protected under the law, including the right to due process. Hadley also questioned the notion of “getting tougher” on the homeless when they might have no job, no place to go and no means to get employed.
“In my experience dealing with these issues, I have found that many people insist that if there is a presence of transients and/or camps in a certain area that the crime rate must increase in those areas,” Hadley said in follow up comments to The Olympian. “In the case of northeast Lacey, we have not found that the presence of transients and camps has increased crime rates in any statistically significant way up to this point.”
Not all of those answers were satisfactory to Jubilee resident Leslie McClure, who is new to Lacey after living in the Seattle area. She says she watched the homeless crisis there spiral out of control and doesn’t want to see it happen in Lacey.
McClure was not without ideas. She supports more mental health services, more housing with a drug rehabilitation component and for single parents, increased access to childcare. She also thinks that a committee or task force should be created to lobby the state for more homeless-related funding.
But she was adamant about what she does not want to see: She doesn’t want to see the homeless receive food, clothing and housing with nothing in return. In other words, there should be some form of responsibility or accountability on their part.
“These are people and we should not treat them like pets,” she said.
What is Lacey doing?
City manager Spence told the group the city is working on several fronts to address homelessness.
The city is a partner in the creation of the future Lacey Food Bank. It also has identified six parcels of property in the city for potential affordable housing, and as many as 2,300 lots in the city that might be able to accommodate an accessory dwelling unit. The city, too, has contributed $50,000 to address a budget shortfall at the Salvation Army.
The city also opened the Lacey Veterans Services Hub, which is open to veterans of all backgrounds, active-duty or not.
But there are no plans for a homeless shelter, Spence said. City officials have discussed the idea of a shelter, but that conversation has not advanced to the next level, he said.
Councilman Steadman acknowledged that when the homeless are asked to leave they don’t have a place to go.
Some homeless-related ideas have not gone well for the city.
Eighteen months ago, Lacey City Council considered an ordinance to ban camping in public, but it was perceived as anti-homeless. The idea was ultimately tabled in the face of strong criticism.