Calling homelessness an emergency is the easy part

The Olympia City Council declared last week that the homelessness crisis is now a public health emergency. The move follows a similar declaration by Thurston County commissioners a month ago.

In both cases, the steps taken were appropriate, if not overdue.

But these actions do little on their own to solve the humanitarian crisis on our doorsteps.

We have hundreds of destitute, and often desperate, souls living on city streets, in wooded areas, parking lots, out-of-the-way public lands or under bridges. Many are in squalor.

Quicker responses by Olympia and the rest of South Sound are needed.

The main benefit of an emergency declaration, according to the city’s downtown programs manager, is to streamline the process for contracting for services.

Help is needed not just for the homeless. Answering homelessness can also make downtown more welcoming for those who run businesses, eat at restaurants or do their shopping at locally owned businesses.

That is why Olympia council leaders must find courage to identify sites for sanctioned tent camping and also to clean up the unofficial homeless encampments that have sprung up around the city.

Though some may see cleanups of unauthorized tent camps as a form of harassment, it is inhumane to leave people in unsanitary conditions that fester on land never meant for dwellers.

Removal of feces, injection needles and other hazards is necessary – even if costly.

The council struck a cautious posture Tuesday and expects to wrestle with the cleanup subject this week. One unauthorized encampment highlighted by the council is located along Wheeler Avenue Southeast on a parcel bought by the city in May for a park .

City-paid crews have swept through such encampments before on health and safety grounds. But sweeps need to be carried out in a way that doesn’t simply push desperate people onto other land, which then ends up despoiled.

A Seattle Times report this week noted that tenants in a large tent encampment being broken up in the Ballard neighborhood promptly went on the other side of a trail and railroad tracks to pitch tents all over again.

As Olympia identifies places where sanctioned camps may be located, officials should look outside the downtown zone that already has a disproportionate share of shelters and services for the needy.

We also need to see more action at the county-wide level and coordination between our cities.

Lacey started discussions months ago about ways to deal with illegal camping and the perceived increase in homeless car owners who are parking overnight along city streets or on public property.

County Commissioner Bud Blake said this week that the county is providing a very small amount of help to Olympia for the purchase of land for a monitored tent camp.

Though the county administers grant funding for housing, Blake said the county is not ready to create tent camp sites for the homeless.

That is too bad.

Our communities need to be thinking bigger, thinking together, and asking for outside help.

For example, this is exactly the right time to be crafting community requests to the governor and state Legislature for strategic aid next year.

No local government can deal with homelessness alone. Ours should stop pretending they can.