Olympia City Council delays camp cleanup under Fourth Avenue bridge

The day before the city of Olympia planned to clear a homeless camp under the Fourth Avenue bridge, the City Council voted to press pause until the city finds a place for camp residents to go.

The camp started to grow in March shortly after another large camp downtown was cleared. The city has said for months it planned to clear the bridge camp, citing safety and environmental concerns.

In the meantime, it provided garbage service and port-a-potties and installed barriers to shrink the camp’s footprint. As of this week, about 20 people were living there.

Campers were told last month they had to leave by 8 a.m. Wednesday. But in recent days, First Christian Church in Olympia offered to partner with campers to establish rules, hold weekly meetings to ensure they are being followed and facilitate other churches’ and nonprofits’ work at the camp.

At the start of Tuesday’s City Council meeting, City Manager Steve Hall announced the city would delay the cleanup, citing the offer from First Christian Church.

“The concerns (for) public health and public safety and environmental degradation under the bridge are real and will continue. And this is perhaps the worst location that I can imagine for a temporary encampment of any kind,” Hall said.

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The council went one step further, voting to delay clearing the camp “until a comparable, safe and appropriate alternative location is available.” That motion came from Nathaniel Jones, a council member running for mayor who came out against the cleanup last week.

Jones said the bridge camp is not much different from other homeless camps across the city “except that it’s an obvious eyesore.” He said clearing it would just move people into other camps.

“I don’t see how that’s an improvement. This proposal just pushes people around,” he said.

Jones’ motion passed 5-1 with Mayor Cheryl Selby voting against. She said she supported delaying at least a few weeks to give the church time to work with campers, but to let the camp remain was “an 11th-hour pivot.”

The Rev. Amy LaCroix from First Christian Church said she visited the camp late last week and that campers asked for help. While the church could help find an alternative site, she said, there is no talk of moving it to the church’s property on Franklin Street Southeast downtown, where Interfaith Works already operates an overnight shelter.

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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.