Let’s listen to those with fears and frustrations about Thurston’s homeless crisis

Thurston County considers possible homeless mitigation site

Thurston County Manager Ramiro Chavez at county property near the corner of Martin Way and Carpenter Road Northeast. The parcel is under consideration as a future homeless mitigation site.
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Thurston County Manager Ramiro Chavez at county property near the corner of Martin Way and Carpenter Road Northeast. The parcel is under consideration as a future homeless mitigation site.

In a May 23 column, The Olympian Editorial Board, referencing a Lacey Planning Commission public hearing on expanding the kinds pf groups that would be allowed to host managed encampments for homeless, described comments made by citizens opposed to the proposal as “ugly.”

However you want to characterize the comments, they were born out of the great frustration shared by many local residents. I am among those who have had a significant number of conversations about the homeless problem our communities face. These conversations have been with people who call themselves liberals, conservatives, moderates, Democrats and Republicans, and with all, the frustration and fear are evident.

There is frustration that all the efforts and all the money expended on the problem have led to a larger and more prominent homeless population. There is fear that the problem will continue to spread into every neighborhood and significantly impact the health and safety around people’s homes. Some (like me) are frustrated that they don’t have any good solutions for the problem.

One of the problems, as I see it, is that the programs adopted and promoted are addressing homelessness as if it is the problem and not a symptom. Olympia establishes an “authorized” tent encampment on a parking lot downtown. Camp Quixote is established to provide a shelter for a handful of “chronically homeless adults.” Tiny homes are built to house others. An initiative is passed to increase the sales tax to raise funds to build 350 homes for our “most vulnerable population” in the next 10 years. An “unauthorized encampment” forms at the base of the Fourth Avenue bridge and instead of removal of the camp, portable toilets and garbage bins are brought to the site.

We are reminded repeatedly that many of the homeless are mentally ill or drug addicted. The legal and social service systems have failed them and us. We are told it is not compassionate to arrest those that are trespassing or otherwise blocking public access. We are told we cannot provide mental health services if those services are refused. We are told that what is needed for many is short-term, secure housing to allow for transition to a job and more permanent housing. We have seen scant evidence of success.

The Editorial Board allowed that there were “obnoxious” homeless people but that there arere obnoxious housed people, too. If obnoxiousness was the only concern, we really wouldn’t have much of a problem. The Board also agreed that people “should not have to put up with having their lawn furniture stolen.” In doing so, the board minimized the real health and safety issues and the legitimate fears and concerns of local residents.

To be sure, there is plenty of misinformation and lack of knowledge on this issue. The problem is not easy to define and harder to address. But denigrating people and their fears does not lead to better understanding, just as disrespecting the homeless does not help lead to identifying solutions. The impact on this community has been significant, particularly in downtown Olympia. It is not hard to understand why citizens of Lacey and Tumwater might oppose copying the Olympia model. There is no question that our homeless population has continued to grow despite the expenditure of significant resources.

We all need to recognize that there is no magic wand to wave this problem away. But we also need to believe that homelessness will be effectively addressed and that “safe tent camps” will not be multiplying across our county. Passing ordinances to allow for more tent camps does not create a solution. Certainly, enough Band-Aids can cover the wound, but the bleeding will continue, and the scar will be ugly.

I am hopeful for our community. The people of this area have proven time and again they are willing to step up in time, ideas, money and efforts to address problems. But that will happen only if we open the dialogue to other thoughts and ideas. That we don’t denigrate people for expressing their fears and frustrations. The beginning of the solution, I believe, is to invite those people into the process. Give them reliable information and an opportunity to contribute. Who knows, maybe one of those ugly speakers will help come up with a beautiful solution.

Gary Andrews, a member of the 2019 Board of Contributors, retired from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office as Senior Counsel in 2017. He has lived in Olympia for 40 years, and in addition to being a lawyer, owned two pet stores and briefly played professional baseball. He can be reached at gandrews2804@gmail.com