City clears State Ave. homeless camp despite criticism from advocates

A combination of city crews and police got to work Tuesday morning clearing an unsanctioned homeless camp at State Avenue Northeast and Franklin Street in downtown Olympia.

City of Olympia spokeswoman Kellie Purce Braseth told reporters at the site that the cleanup was necessary because the location had become unsafe and unsanitary. She cited incidents of assault, drug use and open fires in the camp.

“It’s just not a safe and sanitary place for people to be,” she said.

The cleanup got underway about 9 a.m. Between 40 and 60 residents began by removing personal items, followed by removal of fencing that had encircled the camp. Large dumpsters were stationed east of the site and heavy equipment was poised to begin digging into debris.

Volunteers from the homeless advocacy group Just Housing were on hand to assist those in the camp, including loading trucks with personal belongings.

Just Housing co-founder Tye Gundel said the group asked the city to delay what she termed an “eviction” until a second sanctioned camp can be established, or at least until warmer weather arrives.

Overnight temperatures have been freezing, which she called “life-threatening.”

The city-owned parking lot at State Avenue and Franklin Street had been home to dozens of people since the city stopped enforcing its camping ban last summer. Critics pointed to the sprawling camp as evidence of the city’s lax approach to a homeless crisis.

However, the pause in enforcement was in response to a federal court ruling that said cities can’t prosecute people camping on public property if they have nowhere else to go.

In December, the city opened a sanctioned homeless camp up the block from the State Avenue camp. The following month, it cleared smaller camps on B Avenue Northeast and Jefferson Street Southeast in downtown, offering people in those camps spots in the sanctioned camp.

In late February, the city announced it would move ahead with more camp removals. It cited a subsequent court ruling rejecting an effort to stop camp removals in Oakland, California since that city made efforts to offer shelter beds and other resources to homeless people.

Residents of the State Avenue camp were given six days’ notice of the clearing. On Tuesday morning, some told The Olympian they still did not know where they would go.

Jeremy Scott said he had lived at the camp for six months.

“We really don’t know,” he said about those in the camp and their next destination. “At the end of the day we have been through worse. We’re just trying to be civil and figure it out from there.”

Scott said he is a longtime resident of Olympia. He described the city as once having “Olympia pride.”

“Today, it’s Olympia hate,” he said.

Karen Johnson said she had lived at the camp since August. Her first order of business was to warm up at the Providence Community Care Center across the street from the camp. After that, she didn’t know where she would go.

She said the camp offered her a family, friends and a fire. It also had lights at night and portable bathrooms.

“I was scraping together a life, scraping together a living, scraping together a place to be,” she said.

Olympia spokeswoman Braseth said options for displaced residents included the sanctioned camp, which had about 20 open spots Tuesday morning but was full by the afternoon. She noted the Salvation Army and Union Gospel Mission each added 20 beds at their shelters in anticipation of the camp’s clearing.

By 3 p.m., everyone had moved out of the lot. Some gathered with their belongings on the sidewalk to watch as a front-loader dropped leftover pallets and debris into a dumpster.

Braseth said the city plans to clean the site with a street sweeper and fence it off in the hopes of returning it to a parking lot by early April. She said any belongings left behind will be bagged and can be picked up at the Olympia Police Department in the next 60 days.

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Rolf has worked at The Olympian since August 2005. He covers breaking news, the city of Lacey and business for the paper. Rolf graduated from The Evergreen State College in 1990.
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.