A recent vote by the Olympia City Council legalized special tent camps for up to 40 homeless persons in Olympia. This is a good idea, but it makes sense to look outside the city’s overwhelmed downtown for sites.
Some downtown merchants who sit in the bull's-eye of a growing homeless presence in the city’s commercial core are getting flighty over the possibility of seeing more activity catering to the destitute in what is also a business zone.
Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts is sympathetic to that concern. He told The Olympian Editorial Board this week that concentrating more people in need in the city core is likely to produce more conflicts.
Clearly our businesses, police and social-service providers are struggling to manage multiple missions in a cheek-by-jowl environment.
Fortunately the City Council’s unanimous action leaves open details such as locations of camps. A pilot camp located outside the city core, but which is near bus lines or other services, could serve as a demonstration project for tent camps around South Sound.
Unfortunately many hundreds of homeless individuals camp out every night in the greater-Olympia area, sleeping on streets or in unregulated, jungle conditions. Now a two-month closure of the Salvation Army shelter for renovations this summer takes away needed indoor beds.
The homelessness situation in our city is flat-out unacceptable. This is true on humanitarian grounds alone, but also from the viewpoint that our city needs a commercially vibrant downtown that attracts shoppers as well as new residents to the hundreds of new dwelling units that have been coming on line.
Roberts said police have been cracking down on suspected drug dealing downtown, including around the Community Care Center’s services hub for those in need. But he acknowledged that some merchants and property owners are hiring private security to defend against thieves and vandals.
Changes in downtown culture can't come too quickly, but Roberts got police walking patrols back in action on June 1 with two officers, using public safety money from a voter-approved sales-tax increase.
Roberts is accelerating plans to fully staff the walking patrol and get all of the planned-for officers on the street before August.
His office has also hired a coordinator to oversee another outreach effort – creation of a crisis response team that could be on the streets in January.
The city expects to hire nonprofits or other organizations to run vans with teams including a medical person. These can respond directly to individuals suffering a mental health crisis or help others in crises wrought by extreme poverty.
Anne Larsen, the coordinator, wants to build a crisis-response program that coaxes street residents into shelters or other help. The concept is based on a 30-year-old program used in Eugene, Ore.
Neighboring communities should recognize that Olympia cannot take on a regional challenge like homelessness alone. Our rural county areas, Lacey and Tumwater need to pitch in far more than they have done.
There is need for places in every community where homeless individuals can at least pitch a tent in a way, be safe from victimization and in a way that doesn’t alarm the rest of the community. Nonprofits including churches have stepped up before to host camps, but government has a role to play.
Lacey started looking at allowing car camping in designated areas, because people sleeping in cars, vans and other vehicles were drawing complaints. Tents were being seen in city owned parking lots, too.
Lacey needs to stay engaged on the topic and help spur wider talks with Olympia, Tumwater and the Thurston County commissioners. Help is needed to relieve pressure on the capital city, which up to now has done heavy lifting to provide a place for services catering to those in extreme need.
Olympia residents and business owners are showing both courage and compassion. Voters here have agreed twice in the last year to tax themselves – once for public safety programs and once to build housing for the most vulnerable.
The housing tax won’t provide shelter immediately. But over time it can expand services available to the desperate ranging from drug treatment to mental health services and long-term housing that includes supporting services.
But Olympia cannot do it alone. Our many communities’ leaders need to start talking more often about how our region can better attack this challenge.
One model could be a metropolitan parks district with direct representation or something akin to the Intercity Transit Authority or LOTT Clean Water Alliance. Each formed decades ago because no one jurisdiction was equipped to solve transit or pollution issues alone.
The time for a regional homelessness strategy is here. We need a larger, symphonic commitment, not just a series of trumpet solos that sound great to each jurisdiction’s voters.