Conversations about homelessness in Thurston County typically start in Olympia.
Camp Quixote sprouted on a downtown block years ago, and the city has since dealt with unmanaged and managed camps. In recent months it opened a sanctioned camp north of the Intercity Transit center and a tiny home village off Plum Street Southeast.
Now, Thurston County and Lacey officials are taking steps to address the problem.
The county is considering a regional effort, which would involve Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater, while Lacey is working to update city code when it comes to homeless camps. If approved, the changes would expand the number of organizations that could host a homeless camp.
Both proposals have already received a mixture of opposition and support.
Following a February meeting on homelessness and affordable housing, county officials emerged with two goals: to identify a potential site for a sanctioned homeless camp and to develop an emergency housing ordinance, which would allow for that use.
Two sites were discussed. One was county-owned property near Tumwater, but that proposal fell out of favor given its proximity to the county jail. A second site was identified near Martin Way East and Carpenter Road Northeast.
County Manager Ramiro Chavez said the site near Lacey is served by public transit, is already fenced and surrounded by trees, which would act as a natural, visual barrier.
But Chavez emphasized this is not a near-term development and that many details still need to be worked out, such as commissioner approval of the emergency housing ordinance and creating an agreement between the county, Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater on how the camp would be funded and operated. There’s also the question of which law enforcement department would respond to the site.
He acknowledged the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office is “strapped” when it comes to providing more services.
Chavez was asked whether the planning process would include public outreach.
“It has to,” he said, adding that it might take the form of open houses.
As county, Olympia and Lacey officials gathered at the proposed site last week, Andrew Brown, owner of the cigar shop Brown & Sons stood and watched. Brown’s L-shaped property runs from the corner of Martin Way to the access road for the site under consideration.
“I’m not very happy about it,” he said about the proposal, fearing the site will scare off customers and drive down business. “It’s something we’re going to fight.”
Brown has owned the property since 2001 and it has been home to the cigar business for the past eight years. He wants to see numbers on police and fire responses to homeless camps in Olympia and use that as an example of what might happen at the site near him. He’s also prepared to collect signatures and petition the county to halt the proposal.
“It’s tough being in business nowadays, anyway,” he said, “but having a potential homeless camp behind us will make it even tougher.”
If not the site, the county’s process has at least won the support of some
The county held a public hearing on the proposed changes to the emergency housing ordinance on May 7, attracting public testimony and written comments.
“Our community really needs the county’s support to adequately address this (homeless) crisis,” Tye Gundel, who co-founded the advocacy group Just Housing, wrote to the county. “I also wholeheartedly believe that these changes will open doors for solutions that will improve the well-being, public health and safety of everyone in Thurston County.”
While the county’s work continues, there’s a separate process playing out in Lacey that is causing some confusion, partly because the county proposal is so close to Lacey.
Lacey City Manager Scott Spence said the city definitely wants a role in the development of the county site.
“We need to be at the table discussing what this looks like in the future,” he said, noting that although the proposed mitigation site is in the county, city of Lacey property is across the street.
At the same time, the city’s planning commission has taken on the task of coming up with proposed changes to an emergency housing ordinance that would apply only to the city. Faith-based organizations currently are allowed to host a homeless camp, but Lacey City Council could expand that option to nonprofits and local government.
That proposal has so far received a cool response from residents.
Others, too, aren’t thrilled about the proximity of the county proposal to Lacey. Resident Shane Hunter raised his concerns in an email to Lacey Mayor Andy Ryder.
“Mayor: I live between Pacific Avenue and Martin Way,” Hunter writes. “That means that this (county) site is less than a mile from my house. Who wants to live, knowing that it’s a mile from your home?”
Ryder replied: “We are at the very beginning of this process and this will not be an unregulated camp, if it happens.”
If the county site does become a reality, and has the backing of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater, will it become the main destination for homeless here? Olympia City Manager Steve Hall, who visited the county site last week, thinks that’s unlikely.
“The reality is that given all the unamanged camping, the county is going to have multiple mitigation sites,” he said. ‘I can’t imagine everybody would fit on one site.”
“We have a choice,” he added. “We can have unmanaged camping on private and public property, and continually react and respond and push (the homeless) around to somewhere we don’t want them, or we can come up with solutions. A mitigation site is one solution.”