Homeless code should apply to county, too

Thurston County is considering amending the county code to regulate homeless encampments in the rural portions of the county.

It’s a sound move and one that will put the rules for tent cities in the county in line with regulations already in effect in Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater.

The county’s proposal is not identical to the homeless encampment ordinances adopted by the three major cities — but they are similar enough to have consistency as Camp Quixote moves from one jurisdiction to another.

Camp Quixote, a mobile tent city, was created in February 2007. The Olympia-based Poor Peoples Union planted the homeless encampment on a city parking lot in downtown Olympia as a protest against a city ordinance that bans sitting on parts of city sidewalks. The camp quickly grew to 25 tents.

A great deal of credit for the ensuing success of Camp Quixote goes to the members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation. As Olympia police officers were preparing to move in to break up the illegal encampment — and make arrests if necessary — the folks at the west Olympia church volunteered to host the tent city. That got the campers off city property and allowed a much-needed cooling off period.

Olympia passed an ordinance setting guidelines for homeless encampments and Tumwater quickly followed suit with an identical ordinance. The camp began moving every 90 days to different church parking lots in the capital city.

Members of the Lacey City Council stumbled when they attempted to put an encampment law on the books. Lacey’s initial ordinance forced churches to house the homeless indoors, instead of tents — a provision that made it impossible for faith communities, pastors told the council. After a land use hearing board rejected Lacey’s ordinance, some council members changed their votes and Lacey’s law now parallels that of Olympia and Tumwater.

Now it’s the county’s turn. Contrary to state law, the county has no section within its comprehensive plan to accommodate homeless encampments.

Scott Clark, the county’s long-range planning manager, said, “That was a missing element of our housing chapter. We’re fixing it right now.”

Under the proposal, Clark said, a church located in unincorporated areas, including the urban growth areas of the three cities, would need to secure a special-use permit from Thurston County to host a homeless encampment.

The intent of the regulation, like it was in the three cities, is to protect public health and safety. Case law has held homeless encampments may be regulated but not barred.

Jill Severn, chairwoman of Panza, the interfaith group that supports Camp Quixote, applauds the county’s move saying, “If churches have regulatory certainty, it may help them make a decision to host the camp.”

Like the cities’, the proposed county ordinance caps the duration of tent city stays to 90 days. The county regulations would allow encampments of up to 100 individuals, while the city ordinances cap the number of campers at 40. Camp Quixote has never reached the 40 camper maximum, Severn said.

The county proposal has the same kind of public notification requirements as the cities. A neighborhood meeting must be held in advance of any move.

The county’s proposal requires portable toilets, refuse receptacles, a food tent and a host tent. The camp must be within a quarter mile of a bus stop. The host tent must be manned around the clock. No permanent structures are allowed and neither are open fires for cooking. All residents must undergo a background check and no sex offenders or anyone with a warrant will be allowed to stay. Residents must sign, and live by, a code of conduct.

The simple truth is Camp Quixote has been a huge success — for the homeless, for host churches and for law enforcement.

After planning commission review, county commissioners should adopt the proposed homeless encampment ordinance so potential host churches in the county can step forward and tent city residents will know that the rules they abide by are consistent among the four local government jurisdictions.