The right kind of sweeping
On January 17, the Olympia community came together to clean up a tent encampment adjacent to Marathon Park by Capitol Lake. The camp had been devastated by a recent storm that left belongings and trash scattered all around. Leaders of several activist groups jumped in to help support the folks living in the encampment.
The community comes together to stave off a police sweep
Recent police sweeps behind Westside Lanes and in Tumwater’s Port of Olympia had devastated the homeless community in Thurston County. Following the February storm, community leaders knew they had very little time to react before another sweep disrupted the small camp.
Laughter and cheery conversation filled the camp as camp residents and volunteers worked side by side to clean the area.
Community organizers created Facebook events, handed out fliers, and spread the news by word of mouth, bringing the community together. Friendly volunteers set up tables for distributing gloves and masks. Community members used wheelbarrows to carry garbage off to the dumpsters. Laughter and cheery conversations filled the camp as camp residents and volunteers worked side by side to clean the area.
The pandemic put more people out of their homes
Due to the pandemic, many families have experienced devastating layoffs with loss of income. Homelessness has always been a problem, but currently it is an imminent danger for many who previously earned a relatively stable income.
Even so, this has not stopped police from doing sweeps of homeless camps, cruelly throwing out inhabitants and causing them to lose invaluable belongings including such things as medication, shoes, job equipment– and basic shelter. This is a crippling blow for individuals and families already struggling to survive.
No room at the shelter
Currently, an estimated 800-1000 individuals are without a stable place to live in Thurston County. This is well beyond what local charities and organizations have the capacity to shelter and protect. Social distancing mandates force shelters to cut their number of available beds in half when there were nowhere near 800 beds to begin with.
This is a dismal affair considering that the pandemic and current economic environment is making it impossible for over 32% of all families to pay rent, as of last summer. The alternatives for homeless individuals are narrow and bleak.
Police sweeps don’t solve any problems
Some Olympia residents feel that sweeps are helpful and necessary. Some of these people have safety concerns about drug users who reside in the camps. Others worry about environmental risks that come with the debris and trash that can begin to collect in the areas.
Police sweeps do little to address these concerns. Following a police sweep, the majority of small objects – glass, needles, rusted cans etc. are still present on the property — it remains as unsafe as before the sweep. This does very little to protect the environment or community members.
Throwing out residents does not cause them to disappear either. If anything, it just drives people to desperation as their belongings are trashed, refuges destroyed and they find themselves turned away from crowded shelters.
Breathing easier in the camp
By the end of the day at the camp, the team of community members and camp residents had removed the environmental hazards and other trash, noticeably improving the area. They had accomplished this while focusing on protecting the homeless community from possible police sweeps. Residents were able to breathe a little easier.
Future cleanups around the area are already scheduled. Everyone is doing their part to care for the environment and each other.
Leah Ordonez lives in Olympia and is passionate about local affairs and social justice. She enjoys supporting small businesses professionally as well as through her pastimes.