Olympia launches program targeting unsanctioned camps

In an effort to cut down on costly homeless camp removals, the city of Olympia has launched a six-month pilot project targeting unsanctioned camping on city property.

Starting this week, the city has reassigned two members of its team that cleans downtown to clean up small camps throughout the city and monitor sites that were previously cleared. The Rapid Response Team is the latest effort in the city’s ongoing response to homelessness.

“We found a tendency that once you (get) an area cleaned up, it usually stays pretty clean,” said Mark Moore, who leads the team.

The team will only work on city property or rights of way. If it is called to private property, the team will refer the case to code enforcement officers; if there are people actively camping, they will call police, Moore said.

The public can call the team at 360-522-3850.

Before this, police and code enforcement mostly dealt with unsanctioned camps. If a camp got to be too big, the city would hire a private contractor to clear it. Last year, Olympia spent $74,000 on these contract crews.

“If we don’t pay attention to it, it becomes bigger,” said city spokeswoman Kellie Purce Braseth. “It’s about staying on top of things, keeping things small, and not having these big massive cleanups.”

Braseth said the team will try to differentiate between what is trash and what is someone’s property. With property, she said, the team will bring it to the police station, where the owner would have 60 days to claim it.

On Wednesday morning, Moore and Kevin Cross, a member of the city’s clean team, picked up trash along Martin Way and checked on a former campsite near Olympia Auto Mall. At each stop they logged what they collected and how much.

Their next stop was Black Lake Meadows, a city-owned stormwater complex, where they filled eight heavy-duty garbage bags with trash, blankets, tarps and other items.

By noon, the back of their pickup truck was piled high with garbage bags. Later they planned to check on an area along Harrison Avenue west of Cooper Point Road and a camp off Capitol Boulevard near Interstate 5.

As for the city’s most visible camp right now — the tents under the Fourth Avenue Bridge, whose numbers started to grow after the city cleared a large camp on State Avenue in March — Braseth said the team will monitor that. The city plans to eventually clear the camp; until then it is providing port-a-potties and garbage collection.

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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.