Tent city went on too long

Tent city disappeared from its downtown location at week's end without a police confrontation and without a slew of trespassing arrests. That's the good news.

The bad news is that the encampment of homeless people and their followers have moved to the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation church on the city's west side. City officials insist that organizers of the encampment must obtain a conditional use permit to be legitimate, and that could be problematic.

While we're extremely pleased that the standoff at a city-owned vacant lot off Columbia Street ended peacefully, it's unfortunate that the Olympia City Council did not take a strong stand against the encampment. At eight days, City Manager Steve Hall allowed this illegal trespassing on city property to go on far too long.

The Olympia-based Poor Peoples Union erected the camp Feb. 1 to protest the city's pedestrian-interference ordinance, which went into effect that day. The ordinance outlaws anti-social behavior via a ban on sidewalk sitting. Members of the union mistakenly see the creation of a pedestrian walkway as an attack on the poor and homeless.

The encampment began with just a few tents and campers but grew to about two dozen shelters as the week progressed. Before the City Council meeting Tuesday night, Mayor Mark Foutch said: "There's been a militant slice of the homeless activists that have engaged in in-your-face activity. I guess they think it's effective. It's not."

City Manager Hall and Police Chief Gary Michel visited the camp before the council meeting to tell residents they might be cited, arrested or forced to forfeit their personal property if they didn't disperse. He told them they were violating laws on criminal trespassing and storage requirements on city property. He told campers police might break up the camp at any time.

The council listened to a number of comments that night from homeless advocates. But the council missed a golden opportunity to instruct that the camp be disassembled and the lawbreakers held accountable. Most council members spoke against the encampment at the meeting or to a reporter, but they said they were leaving it up to the city staff to handle the situation. Councilman Joe Hyer said, "We are leaving it to our professionals to figure out the fastest and the best way to end this."

What kind of leadership is that? Isn't it the City Council's responsibility to ensure that the laws they create are enforced in a timely fashion?

The illegal camp dragged on day after day with more warnings from city officials. A flier listing community resources was distributed Thursday, followed by more inaction on the city's part.

Finally, when crews moved in Friday morning, the campers simply loaded up their belongings and headed for the west side church.

That's problematic.

"We have not given permission for a tent city to be set up anywhere in the City of Olympia," city spokeswoman Cathie Butler said. "We do not condone tent encampments for health, safety and sanitation reasons, and tent cities are not identified as part of the regional approach to homeless housing agreed to by the jurisdictions in Thurston County."

While the city will insist the encampment get a conditional use permit, it's not clear what, if any, action the city can or will take in the interim. Butler said, "Courts have blocked other cities, during a permit application process, from removing homeless tent encampments from church properties."

While the city's $832,523 financial commitment to the homeless and social services this year is commendable, city officials have prolonged the tent city debate through their inaction.