City of Olympia is right to close down Fourth Ave. Bridge camp

Editor’s Note: Since publishing this editorial on Sunday, The Olympian editorial board has heard from two churches that wanted us to know that the Fourth Avenue Bridge camp does have support from their congregations. Mark Johnson of First United Methodist Church of Olympia, said his congregation is providing food, clothing and supplies weekly and is considering expanding that support. The Rev. Amy LaCroix from First Christian Church wrote that her congregation has agreed to adopt the camp and provide support for its effective governance. We urge readers to take those things into account as they read this editorial and formulate their own opinions. Dusti Demarest, Editor

If you do what you’ve always done, you will get what you’ve always gotten. That adage applies to local government evictions of tent camps: When the city evicts a tent camp from one location, what they get is a tent camp in another location.

Nonetheless, the city of Olympia plans to evict a tent camp from under the Fourth Avenue bridge because they say it presents unique dangers to its residents’ safety, and to water quality and the integrity of the bridge. The degree of these dangers is, of course, in dispute.

What’s not in dispute is that there are not enough shelter beds for those about to be displaced. According to Keylee Marineau, the Thurston County Homeless Prevention and Affordable Housing Coordinator, there are 357 shelter beds and about 850 to 1,000 unsheltered people in our county.

For the past year, the city has sent mixed signals to the camp. Initially, it was allowed to take root when the city cleared camps downtown, and when there was hope of establishing a second city-managed camp that could accommodate them. Campers were told that their tenancy was dependent on their behavior and safety, but still would not be permanent. The city also provided the camp with portable toilets and garbage service.

What the city couldn’t do was help with the critical, daunting task of establishing and sustaining a system for governing the camp. No faith community or nonprofit stepped forward to support that crucial effort. We believe this is the crucial flaw that now warrants the camp’s closure.

There is a tent camp on city property on Olympia’s east side — near but separate from the larger camp on state property near Wheeler Avenue — that demonstrates why this is important. The Nickerson camp of 12 to 20 people is supported by volunteers organized by The United Churches and the advocacy group Just Housing Olympia. Camp residents make and enforce their own rules. A weekly camp meeting, attended by a church volunteer who acts as a supportive observer, ensures that the rules are followed, and that health, safety and fairness standards are maintained.

There are still problems, of course, but they are managed. Volunteers and camp residents are accountable to one another. The residents of the camp are more inclined to regard themselves as part of the larger community, because they are.

Campers under the bridge mainly regard themselves as outcasts – also because they are. Lacking any connection to the larger community other than their conflicted relationship with the city and advocacy from Just Housing Olympia, governance of the camp became chaotic, contested, and irregular as the camp population, squeezed into a limited space, churned.

A tent was set on fire, propane tanks nearby sent shudders of fear through the fire department, and a camp leader was arrested and charged with dealing drugs. A colony of rats thrived, and garbage proliferated, despite the presence of a nearby dumpster.

City staff notified residents on Aug. 20 that they needed to be out by this coming Wednesday. Some residents have already moved.

The city has been unable to establish a second city-managed tent camp, which is understandable, since every possible location is vehemently opposed by its prospective neighbors.

Just Housing Olympia is trying to persuade the council to let the camp stay. Tye Gundel, who handles communications for the group, was recently quoted in The Olympian as saying that Just Housing wouldn’t encourage campers to defy the city, but would support them if they do. We believe this is an invitation to fruitless conflict and even greater trauma than the forced move.

Council member and mayoral candidate Nathaniel Jones also has called for a delay of the eviction. He says he wants the camp closed “as quickly as possible” through an “effective response.” If he had an idea about a more effective response to unmanaged tent camps, why hasn’t he offered it before now?

At this point, delaying the closure only prolongs the uncertainty, postpones the trauma, and perpetuates hazards to residents’ and others’ health and safety.

While we fully acknowledge the frustrations with unmanaged tent camps in the city, we believe the Olympia City Council – and city voters – have done far more to alleviate homelessness than any other government in South Sound. But the city can’t do it alone. Nor can the new Regional Housing Council of local cities and county government. The upstream problems that produce homelessness are national, not local.

The sorrow of this situation is that no one in our community – no faith community, no nonprofit, no service club – did for the Fourth Avenue Bridge camp what the volunteers from The United Churches and their allies are doing for the Nickerson camp. We hope that wherever the Fourth Avenue Bridge folks camp next, someone will.