Idea of city-run homeless camps make you cringe? They may be the only best option

Homeless camps sprouting, growing throughout downtown Olympia

Multiple homeless camps are spreading through downtown Olympia parking lots as a federal court ruling halts city efforts to disband the encampments.
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Multiple homeless camps are spreading through downtown Olympia parking lots as a federal court ruling halts city efforts to disband the encampments.

A federal appeals court ruled recently that arresting people who are homeless for camping on public property is cruel and unusual punishment when no shelter is available.

“As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” Circuit Court Judge Marsha Berzon wrote.

This is welcome news for homeless people and their advocates, and an immense challenge for Olympia and many other cities.

This ruling came in early September, just as Olympia’s city government was preparing to clear several growing camps on public property downtown, just north of Intercity Transit, under the 4th Avenue bridge, and near the LOTT treatment plant.

Since then, the camps have mushroomed. In August, the city counted 30 tents downtown; now there are over 300. This is an alarming and perplexing number.

It looks as if the homeless population is exploding. But until the official homeless census is taken next January, we won’t really know how much, or why. (In the last annual census, the number of homeless people in Thurston County grew from 534 to 835. The majority were in shelters; 320 were unsheltered.)

Even before this ruling, city staff were stretched to the limit to respond to homelessness. In part with the annual $2.3 million coming in from the Home Fund levy passed last February, they have been working to:

expand local 24/7 shelter capacity,

open a 40-person village of temporary tiny houses,

help local faith communities host more tiny houses, and

plan to build permanent housing with social service staff for people who need ongoing help and support.

The court’s ruling just added another very large to-do item to that already long list of projects.

Now instead of clearing the downtown camps, the city plans to create two temporary “mitigation sites” — essentially large, managed camp sites on city-owned parking lots. The first of these will accommodate 80 people, and open in December. The city will provide fencing, tents, portable toilets, garbage service, a community area, and two tiny houses at entry points that will be staffed by currently homeless people.

There will be heavy reliance on resident self-governance, but the city’s Homeless Response Coordinator will monitor it closely. Local service organizations will be recruited to help those who want to take steps to get off the street.

At a meeting to present this plan to downtown business owners and nonprofits last Wednesday, there were many questions and some skepticism, but little outright opposition.

The main issues downtown — for homeless people and everyone else — are safety, sanitation, and neighbor relations. And business owners seemed to accept the metrics the city is proposing as markers of success, which include fewer needles on the street, less poop in public places, greater safety, dignity and compassion for people in need, and a potential path out of homelessness.

But that last metric — a path out of homelessness — will be a long, winding, bumpy road that the city can’t build by itself. Even with Home Fund dollars, city government can never match the scale of this growing crisis. And while Mayor Selby urged everyone at the Wednesday meeting to contact county commissioners, the state, and neighboring cities to recruit their help, even they can get us only part of the way. What’s really needed is a massive increase in federal housing help (wake up Ben Carson!), and a private sector housing market that responds to the needs of very low-income people.

So even though we cringe at the idea of establishing what is essentially a refugee camp in downtown Olympia, we all need to swallow hard and help out. At the Wednesday meeting, one woman asked how to donate blankets or sleeping bags. The answer from the Homeless Response Coordinator was “we’ll figure that out.” He is already working a lot of overtime, and is about to take on even more.

We can and should hold the city accountable for learning from this experiment in crisis management, and for adjusting and adapting as problems arise, as they surely will. But we support the city’s determination to uphold a legal mandate, and to end the refrain that wherever homeless people are, they should go somewhere else.