In Lacey as elsewhere: An old, unworkable and always at hand approach to homelessness

The City of Lacey just turned 50, and the city council held an appreciation ceremony at its meeting Thursday night for those who made the year long celebration a success.

The accolades, though well deserved, along with the announcement of the city’s new song, “You’re Never a Stranger in Lacey,” could not have been more poorly timed.

Ironically, the city also had on their agenda consideration of an ordinance related to the prohibition of camping on public property. 

Tens of community members, social workers, and advocates for street people filled the room in opposition to the ordinance. Hasty conversations between council members just prior to the start of the meeting was observed. 

When it came time to approve the agenda, Mayor Andy Ryder made a motion to table the controversial agenda item, saying he wanted people to have a chance to comment on it.

City councils typically do not allow public comment on items already on the agenda and there had been no previous public discussion about the proposed ordinance.

City attorney Dave Schneider gave a brief report, then the council unanimously put the item on the agenda for discussion at their next work session, scheduled for August 3 at 7:00 p.m., Lacey City Council chambers.

The staff report, which lists no disadvantages to the ordinance, reads, “Increasingly, people are camping in public areas in cities and towns across the country. Such camping is taking place in areas that are not designated as, nor intended or designed for camping. The allowance of camping in such areas presents health and safety concerns for the public. Other Washington cities have begun to regulate camping activities via their city codes. 

“Currently there is limited regulation on this type of camping in the City of Lacey. Recent case law suggests that regulations which prohibit camping in public areas are permissible provided adequate shelter options are available for those camping due to lack of shelter. In the Lacey-Olympia-Tumwater area there are several such shelters available, some partly funded by public means. Accordingly, the City of Lacey may legally regulate camping.”

The proposed ordinance would prohibit camping in any park, on any street, or publicly owned parking lot or publicly owned area. Violators would be subject to a $1,000 fine or by imprisonment not to exceed ninety days, or both.

A “compassionate enforcement” section states that the investigating officer shall inquire as to whether the camping is due to homelessness. If the officer learns that is the case, the officer shall determine whether any known homeless shelters within the cities of Lacey, Olympia, or Tumwater have adequate space and facilities available to accommodate the subject of the investigation. 

If the officer determines that all such shelter space is full, the officer shall not issue a citation. If the officer determines that there is shelter space available, the officer may, within his or her discretion, issue a citation, provide directions to the shelter and/or offer one-time transportation to the shelter.

A wide range of representatives and volunteers from area homeless support and advocacy organizations, such as Sidewalk, Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter, and Just Housing argued that there are not enough shelters in the region to house the homeless. The City of Lacey does not have a homeless shelter.

Community activists with veteran support groups, the Libertarian Party, the Thurston County Democratic Party, and various Tumwater and Lacey city council candidates all spoke in opposition to the ordinance. 

Others literally came out of the woods to speak for themselves, telling first-hand stories of their experiences with homelessness.

In all, thirty articulate, passionate speakers spoke to council members.

Just Housing arranged carpools for several people to attend the meeting. Many speakers handed out flowers to council members.

The flowers, some with names attached, signified those who have passed away on the streets or those who are surviving on the streets without shelter.

Tye Gundel, an organizer with Just Housing, said she wanted the flowers to remind the Lacey City Council that the ordinance represents so much more than a simple rule on paper.

“It is an ordinance that has the potential to affect the lives and survival of hundreds. We need to remind them that each one of them has the power in their vote to prevent so many more beautiful flowers from suffering and even possibly, from dying,” she said before the meeting.

Patrick and Danelle Helsper came to the meeting on their own, after hearing about the proposed ordinance on Seattle based radio stations KIRO and KOMO.

“I can’t give you an address,” Patrick Helsper started, trying to fulfill the typical requirement requested by public bodies when speakers approach the podium to speak.

He said he and his wife have been married for 34 years. Their home was foreclosed, and both have medical issues, making them unable to work. They receive Social Security, and park their motorhome in the parking lot of a Lacey business.

The couple says there aren’t enough recreational vehicle parks in the area and Capitol Forest changed its rules, allowing camping ten days in a calendar year.

“We don’t litter or leave trash. …We’re not criminals, we don’t do drugs, we’re just down on our luck! What are we supposed to do? We want to know!”

Eric Miller said that this proposed ordinance hit home for him because he and his brother grew up homeless in Lacey.

When he was about 13 years old, his single mother developed agoraphobia, a fear of leaving the house, which they eventually did not have. He did as many odd jobs as he could. Friends would let them sleep in their garage or on couches. They also lived on the streets.

Through all that, he was vice president of his student body, graduated from South Sound High School, and received a community service award.

“My childhood was not easy, but one benefit that I feel like we had was that my mom didn’t have to run from the police or worry about our RV getting towed or impounded. We did have a lot of other things to worry about, but to me, at a time that income inequality is growing further, we need to look for a way to reach out to the most vulnerable and make things easier for them instead of figuring out new ways to attack them,” he said in an interview before the meeting.

James Blair, of Yelm, is chair of the Libertarian Party of Thurston County.

“When this meeting started, each and every one of you stood up and said The Pledge of Allegiance. The last sentence is, ‘with liberty and justice for all.’ This ordinance does not promote liberty and assuredly does not promote justice,” he said. 

“I don’t tell people this very much, but for nine months, I slept in my truck…Multiple times, wherever I parked, I was told to move….Everyone in this room could end up in the same situation…this doesn’t target homeless people? That’s the only people it’s targeting….You say other cities have this similar ordinances….If someone jumps off a cliff, would you? It’s wrong, and Lacey needs to step forward and find a different solution.”

TJ LaRocque spoke as a private citizen in opposition to the ordinance. 

LaRocque works for Providence St. Peter Hospital and will serve as the manager for the Providence Community Care Center currently under construction in downtown Olympia. The center will provide wrap-around health and wellness services along with showers and restrooms.

He said that if the ordinance was enacted, it would be difficult to reverse, and that the City of Olympia’s ordinance, which is similar to the one proposed by Lacey, has caused damage to the community. 

“Even if this is with the best of intentions not meant to be coordinated around the homeless, there is no way to separate an ordinance like this from homelessness,” he said, saying that the majority of those who are car camping are families who could best be helped with rent assistance and rapid rehousing.

Since Lacey does not have a downtown, he said he does not want to see the ordinance push people out of Lacey and into a concentrated area like downtown Olympia.

“…And when people are looking at whether or not there are enough shelter beds, we fail as a community,” referring to the 200 people per night who showed up per at Interfaith Works’ temporary warming center in downtown Olympia this past winter.

Eric Franks, a man who is disabled and uses a wheelchair, said he became homeless one and a half months ago because the property owner recently sold the home he was living in. He says this is his third stint with homelessness.

He said that Tuesday was the 27th anniversary of the American Disability Act, and learned that in the late 1800’s, there were American cities that made it illegal for persons with “ugly,” or “unsightly” disabilities to appear in public.

“This ordinance criminalizes humanity. I don’t want to go backwards,” he said.

Phoenix Wendt, who lives in the woods, is active in finding solutions. She participated in the drafting of a resolution that will be introduced to the Olympia City Council at its meeting next Tuesday. If passed, it could result in a standing committee on homelessness.

Before the meeting, Wendt was circumspect about her situation.

“I love everyone and I appreciate everyone to the point that, yeah, I may have a difficult past but this is the best I can give you right now. Why is it that evil is still in this world? Why does it still exist? It is to make us humble to have the pain and suffering to move us closer to understanding love, joy, and beautiful mercy and compassion for others. It brings us closer together,” she said.

Reprinted with permission from Janine’s Little Hollywood, 7/28/17