OPINION

Homeless-camp cleanups: Many questions remain unanswered by cities

Posted

I recently read A Promised Land by Barack Obama and learned that my perceptions of many of his actions had been based on lack of context and sparse information. He does an excellent job of explaining the history, conditions and players influencing his decisions, so even if I don’t agree with what he did, the rationale now makes sense to me.  What was missing for me then was good, current information so that the decisions could at least be respected.

That same situation is getting played out here at home with respect to the homeless population and camps; we have lots of opinions but there is very little current info about what is going on in the camps and what the municipalities are planning. How many of us knew that the county, via the Regional Housing Council, had been looking for a place to move the RVs off of Ensign Road, or that Olympia tried earlier but the state attorney general advised them that they couldn’t?

I decided about seven weeks ago to do what I could to get the camps cleaned up. What to do wasn’t clear. I didn’t know how to accomplish this, still don’t, but the first step had to be to get up-to-speed on what’s currently happening. Stumbling along trying to figure out what to do lead to lots of conversations by phone and email with city staff, the county homeless coordinator and volunteer organizations. Then came reviewing the homeless plans and budgets online for all the jurisdictions, posting on NextDoor, writing this editorial, and sending a cleanup proposal with budgets to staff and a couple of council members.

Fortunately, there is a lot going on all fronts, which is good to see, but the problem is still overwhelming our resources. Olympia is getting ready to clean the camp on Deschutes Parkway, and the Scattered Site proposal has been sent to the county commissioners. That proposal may take some time to work through, and we don’t know what the commissioners will do with it.

Something that would help us all feel a sense of progress would be to have some idea of what the overall plan is for all of the camps for the next six months to a year. It seems like it’s a safe bet that we’re going to have some camps for a while since we can’t build enough housing and shelter as the magnitude of the problem is too large.  We also know that the eviction moratorium is scheduled to end June 30th -- which should change the options we have for dealing with the camps.

My understanding is that the owners of the Deschutes Parkway properties on which one of the encampments sits want to close it.  We don’t know the municipalities’ intentions about the other camps. Even though the eviction moratorium is ending will there be any other impediments preventing the closing of any camps?  Is it possible that because the city has provided services - garbage and sanitation - that it may affect the ability to evict?  I’d like to believe that’s not the case but again there doesn’t seem to be any written info anywhere about this specific question.

What would be most helpful is for the Olympia City Council to let us know what their intent is with Ensign Road and, for that matter, what all the jurisdictions plan for all the camps over the next year. There are heated and passionate discussions about that precise topic throughout the county. For instance there’s an extensive thread on NextDoor – more than 600 comments. The one consensus among the views is that the conditions of the camps, cleanliness and safety, is unacceptable and has to improve as soon as possible. This is a topic that deserves public discussion now.

Wouldn’t it be helpful if we could get some answers to these questions?

  • After the moratorium what are our choices with respect to closing camps and what are the relevant legal issues?  Olympia’s assistant city attorney told me that he couldn’t say … because it would violate attorney/client confidentiality.
  • Cleanup what is the intent for this year especially next six months?
    Is there anything we’re doing now that will delay closing camps on private property that we might want to avoid?
  • The city is choosing not to enforce certain laws: sleeping on the sidewalk, littering, camping on city streets, etc.  How were those decisions made, and do they intend to either enforce these codes or change the laws.

As much as anything else the jurisdictions need to find better ways to communicate with us. They are aware of this problem, are working on improving how they inform the public.  Hearing from them soon will help all of us feel better about the progress being made and what we can expect in the near future.

Pat Cole is a former member of Olympia's city council. As a private citizen, he is developing plans to assist with efforts to clean up the homeless camps in Thurston County. 

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