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Olympia clears unsanctioned homeless camps, but the largest one downtown remains

Taking count of South Sound homeless

Census workers and city officials search forests, hidden properties and makeshift campsites throughout Olympia and Tumwater for the annual homeless census.
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Census workers and city officials search forests, hidden properties and makeshift campsites throughout Olympia and Tumwater for the annual homeless census.

After months of criticism over its handling of downtown homelessness, the city of Olympia cleared two unsanctioned camps in as many days this week.

On Tuesday morning, crews removed about 20 people camping along B Avenue Northeast. A city spokeswoman said they were given notice beforehand and offered spots at the city’s sanctioned camp a few blocks away, which 14 of them accepted.

After the camp was cleared, fences were installed to block off that block of B Avenue. The city’s notice said that was because of construction starting nearby.

On Wednesday, crews cleared a smaller camp near railroad tracks at Seventh Avenue Southeast and Jefferson Street Southeast.

As a front loader dropped debris into a dumpster, Ben Edwards-Hatchett piled his belongings into three shopping carts. He said he was one of as many as six people who had camped there for months.

Wednesday night, he said, he would probably sleep on Fourth Avenue.

“Sleeping here as far as shelter isn’t much different (than) sleeping in front of a business in an alcove. I didn’t have a heat source,” Edwards-Hatchett said.

Volunteers from the advocacy group Just Housing were at both camps this week to help people pack up and move their belongings. Volunteer Regon Unsoeld said he worried the city wasn’t doing enough to ensure there were places for people at the camps to go.

Olympia stopped clearing camps downtown last summer following a federal court ruling that said cities can’t prosecute people camping on public property if they have nowhere else to go. In December, Olympia opened a sanctioned camp but as of Wednesday that was at capacity, said Colin DeForrest, the city’s homeless response coordinator.

The city also is preparing to open a tiny home village at 830 Union Ave. SE. An open house is scheduled for 3-6 p.m. Thursday and residents are slated to move in next week.

DeForrest said no other camps are expected to be cleared soon. The city eventually hopes to address a large, unsanctioned camp on State Avenue Northeast, but that might have to wait until the city opens a second sanctioned camp.

“It’s not sustainable the way it is,” DeForrest said of the State Avenue camp. “I think everybody knows that.”

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.
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