Food bank leader worries downtown homeless camps are keeping hungry people away

Recent drop in client numbers concerns Thurston food bank director

Thurston County Food Bank Director Robert Coit is concerned by recently declining client numbers at their downtown Olympia location, citing safety fears he's receiving from volunteers & clients.
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Thurston County Food Bank Director Robert Coit is concerned by recently declining client numbers at their downtown Olympia location, citing safety fears he's receiving from volunteers & clients.

Robert Coit is torn.

As executive director of the Thurston County Food Bank, Coit believes everyone should have access to food. That means people with homes and people without, including those living in tent camps in downtown Olympia within blocks of the food bank on Thurston Avenue Northeast.

He is torn because the camps appear to be keeping others from coming to the food bank to get the help they need.

The number of people camping downtown, mostly in city-owned parking lots, exploded in the fall after the city stopped enforcing its camping ban. That was in response to a federal court ruling that limited cities’ ability to prosecute people camping illegally.

More than a month after the city opened a sanctioned camp — referred to as a mitigation site — on Olympia Avenue Northeast a block from the food bank, tension surrounding homelessness and the city’s response remain high.

Two blocks from the food bank is a sprawling, unsanctioned camp on State Avenue Northeast. Coit said he doesn’t think the camps make downtown any less safe, but that is the perception he’s up against.

“Whether it’s true or not, they’re not coming,” he said of his clients.

On a busy day the food bank serves more than 400 households. In November, it had six busy days. In December, it had three. This month, it has had zero.

A woman stocks up at the Thurston County Food Bank in downtown Olympia on Wednesday. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

Coit went to Tuesday’s City Council meeting to ask for help ensuring the food bank is accessible to everyone. He wasn’t alone in speaking to the council about the homeless.

While some speakers thanked city leaders for the mitigation site and called for compassion for those in the camps, others said the city is on the wrong track. A woman who lives in low-income senior housing near the food bank said visitors have stopped coming to see residents there out of fear.

As of this week, city officials said the mitigation site was full with 115 people. The city hopes to open a second site, preferably away from downtown, according to city spokeswoman Kellie Purce Braseth, and to clear the State Avenue camp “as soon as possible.”

The city does plan to clear a smaller camp up the street from the food bank on B Avenue Northeast next week, she said, to make way for construction by the local wastewater utility planned for later this year.

There are other challenges to running the food bank these days, Coit said. Parking can be hard to find, and occasionally police cruisers and fire trucks called to the camps block traffic on nearby streets. School groups also have canceled plans to volunteer at the food bank.

If people won’t come downtown, Coit said, the food bank may open a temporary location elsewhere until its Lacey facility opens in 2020. That would likely mean taking resources away from downtown.

On Wednesday afternoon, clients picked from fresh produce, baked goods, frozen meat and shelf-stable staples like peanut butter, cereal and boxed macaroni and cheese. Coit said he is trying to stock more items for those without kitchens, things like bottled water, canned meat and granola bars.

While there was a steady stream of people lining up to check in, Coit pointed to the waiting area with seating for 50. On this day, it was empty.

Follow more of our reporting on Homelessness in Thurston County

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Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.