Residents of the Applehill neighborhood in NE Olympia were shocked when we learned through social media that the City was proposing to establish a legal encampment for the unhoused in our neighborhood, along with an “Urban Rest Stop” that would serve a larger number of homeless. We quickly organized to oppose the camp, based on two years of bad experience with multiple unsanctioned camps on our street.
Residents appeared in large numbers at a July 31 City Council Finance Committee meeting to protest the proposal. On August 10, four Applehill representatives, including this writer, met with Colin DeForrest, the city’s newly hired Homeless Response Coordinator and Councilmember Renata Rollins. We told our story. They listened.
The result was an amended proposal focusing on the most vulnerable unhoused demographic, revealed at a Council meeting August 21, with over a dozen Applehill residents in attendance. We were pleased that several Councilmembers spoke to our concerns when questioning DeForrest on details of the new plan.
Reactions of residents, however, are mixed and wary. Some neighbors are cautiously optimistic about the involvement of Interfaith Works given their long-term experience with the overnight shelter on Franklin St. but we also have concern over population numbers.
Residents are upset that services could be still be offered to non-residents of the site, which would incentivize unsanctioned camps on Pattison St. Also, DeForrest has not presented a specific plan for dealing with the presence of unsanctioned camps. Residents take the position that there should be no unsanctioned camps allowed on Pattison Street if there is an 80 bed site constructed.
History of unsanctioned camps on Pattison Street
I moved to Pattison St. five years ago, surprised there even was a neighborhood here. This section of Pattison is less than ½ mile long, the Applehill subdivision branching off midway. There are 40 houses and a large apartment complex that mainly serves working class people. The location is accessible and quiet.
At the time, there was a long-standing homeless camp behind the VFW. The campers, a small population of older men, seemed to want to be left alone. For three years there were no problems.
Things changed two summers ago, reaching a crisis point last September. Population, mostly younger males, in the VFW camp grew, and there was a dramatic increase in antisocial behavior.
Incidents piled up and residents grew scared and angry. We started organizing and tried to get help from the city with little response. Code enforcement was the only tool that worked, but only for on-street camping and abandoned cars.
By fall 2017, the camp had grown to at least 50 people. They were evicted when the property owner did annual fall forest management. This moved the camp up the street to the woods near 8th St., adjacent to the Applehill subdivision.
This camp also grew to unsustainable population levels and was evicted this June, after which the neighborhood went back to being peaceful.
Effects of unsanctioned camps on the neighborhood
We in Applehill know that homeless people are not bad people — the majority of the unhoused have the same goal we do—a safe place to live. Residents of Applehill recognize social forces have led to this crisis, and we have compassion for the situation the unhoused face. Many of us, including myself, provide support.
There is, however, among the unhoused, a subset that engage in antisocial behavior that causes harm. This is an inconvenient truth some activists do not want to talk about for fear it will lead to more discrimination against the unhoused. But not talking about it does not mean it does not exist, and that it does not cause harm.
Unfortunately, Applehill has dealt with this harm for two years. Almost every resident has stories, but there is no police record documenting the pattern or level of incidents. This does not mean these incidents were trivial, but that calling the police was pointless.
Acts of aggression have been numerous. Women especially have been targeted, reporting the most in-your-face type of aggression. Some neighbors have remarked on the boldness of the younger demographic, the sense of entitlement and then anger when boundaries are set.
We have been victims of petty theft, attempted break ins, and trespass. Of course, these crimes happen in neighborhoods without camps, but it was rare before the population of the camps exploded, and it goes back to being rare during the periods when the camps are cleared.
We have found used/uncapped needles on the street and in wooded areas. The quantity also seems correlated with the volume of campers. There was an RV that was blatantly dealing. I procured Narcan because I did not want to see someone die.
In June, a burn caused toxic fumes that filled the neighborhood, sickening residents. A recent brushfire required a call to the fire department. The extremely dry weather, frequent open fires and the close proximity of the camps to our homes makes us nervous.
Next steps for neighborhood and city
Applehill residents look forward to continuing a productive and non-adversarial relationship with the city and will be attending and speaking at various City Council sessions, meeting privately with city representatives, as well as with Meg Martin, Program Director of Interfaith Works. We will be continuing a positive relationship with Tye Gundal of Just Housing, who is informed and helpful. It is our hope the city will include at least one representative of the Applehill community on an advisory committee advocated for by Councilmember Lisa Parshley.
We feel the most humane solution is for permanent supportive housing be built on the site as soon as possible.
Interested community members can attend the City Council Finance Meeting September 6 at 5:30 at City Hall. This meeting will address financing and ongoing operational costs for the site including more detail on the proposal. Citizens may comment.
Candace Mercer is an artist/writer/activist who has lived in Olympia for 22 years, currently a resident of the Applehill neighborhood. She wrote about the Chaplin/Thompson shooting in WIP. She has worked with the Thurston Mason Crisis Clinic, the Northwest Justice Project, and the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice.