The City of Olympia adopted a new no-camping ordinance in early January, which has been described as discriminatory towards the homeless by some members of the community. The new ordinance bans camping on all city-owned property and goes into effect Feb. 8, 2013.
According to the 2012 Thurston County Homeless Census, there were 724 documented homeless individuals in Thurston County, 518 of those individuals were currently residing in Olympia. This is an increase of 157 homeless individuals in Thurston County since 2011’s Homeless Census documented 567 individuals.
The City Council has discussed building a shelter with few restrictions for admittance and building public bathrooms. These resources would be to help amend both the forced relocation of campers and the waste material left at these locations.
According to the ordinance, concerns over public health and safety due to waste material left in areas such as City Hall and the Artesian Well were primary concerns. The ordinance said there have also been issues with campers having dogs, with at least one incidence of a dog biting a City Hall employee. Interference with the public’s ability to access the city properties has also been listed as an issue by the ordinance.
South Puget Sound Community College student Riley Maddox said he does not support this new ordinance. Maddox said he believes this ordinance is focused on the homeless community, due to the fact that homeless individuals are the most likely
to camp on city property.
Maddox said there are other things that need to be solved before we can prosecute the homeless. They need to be supported rather than put down, he said.
SPSCC student DK Ejim said the new ordinance is “a bit of a mixed bag.” Ejim said downtown Olympia will look better when there are not campers, since trash and waste has been an issue.
Ejim said this ordinance will force the homeless to relocate, which will not solve the problem but just move it. Ejim said that building camping areas or public bathrooms will cost tax money and that using resources and systems that are already in place will be a better alternative for homeless individuals.
According to Olympia’s Housing Program Manager Anna Schlecht, there are no designated camping grounds within the City of Olympia. Schlecht said this ordinance will clearly affect those that camped on city property before the ordinance.
According to Housing Authority Homeless Coordinator, Theresa Slusher, there is currently very little housing that individuals on the streets can access. Slusher said individuals sleeping in downtown Olympia need supportive housing. Supportive housing provides services in mental health, addiction and recovery, or assistance in getting benefits such as social security or veterans’ assistance.
Slusher said, “Supportive housing is usually expensive to develop, which is why we don’t have enough to meet the need here in Thurston County. Thurston County’s HOME Citizens Advisory Committee is studying ways to create less expensive supportive housing so that we can get some up and running and get people off the streets soon.”
According to Schlecht, “The Council is working with regional partners to expand our homeless shelter resources in order to accommodate people who are impacted by this ordinance in specific, and to expand the network of shelter, housing, and other resources for people experiencing homelessness in general.”
Homeless individuals in Olympia said they do not support this ordinance. Homeless youth Richmond Tolbert said it is becoming increasingly difficult to find anywhere in Olympia to camp.
“To sleep anywhere you will have to walk far from town, or find a back alley and still have the possibility of being fucked with by cops,” said Tolbert.
Tolbert began sleeping at City Hall last summer with a few friends and his ex-girlfriend. Other homeless individuals joined after being kicked out of the artesian well location by police.
According to Tolbert, police officers had originally told him to sleep at City Hall. Tolbert said City Hall then added more security officers and began pressure washing the sidewalk at 6 a.m. in order to wake up campers. Police officers would also show up to run a criminal warrant searches on all campers, said Tolbert.
Tolbert said there were only a few campers that left garbage and waste at City Hall, and he would spend his morning cleaning up after himself and others.
Homeless individual Cimmarron Bale-Fookes also said there are fewer and fewer places for the homeless population to sleep.
“You can get criminal charges for sleeping,” said Bale-Fookes.
Jeff Stewart, a homeless individual often seen flying a sign at the Capital Auto Mall freeway exit near SPSCC, spoke out against discrimination towards the homeless.
Stewart said it doesn’t affect others that much when homeless individuals camp on city property or sidewalks, since the businesses and city buildings are closed at night. According to Stewart, many of those camping in the downtown area are kids or young adults, who often have come from bad family situations or have a lack of education.
He said Olympia, among other cities, has a history of discrimination against the homeless.
“As long as they are only enforcing against one specific group of people, they’re discriminating. That’s what discrimination is. You can’t control if you have a place to live, not anymore,” said Stewart.
According to the Jan. 8, 2013 city council minutes, “City Manager Steve Hall reported most shelters are at about 80 percent capacity.” For those that wish to camp, there are no longer any options in the city of Olympia.