In the two months since it passed Resolution M-1942 committing the city to a response to homelessness based on harm-reduction, trauma-informed care and anti-oppression, Council members have faced and addressed challenges to those values. Sometimes the challenge comes from the City’s own actions.
A new approach to looking at homelessness
Resolution M-1942 also directed city staff to create safe and legal places for people to camp with garbage support, bathrooms, and storage. This provision envisioned the possibility of legalizing homeless encampments under some circumstances.
In the following the weeks, the Council continued working toward the goals expressed in their May resolution. On June 5, they amended Olympia’s Temporary Emergency Housing Facilities ordinance, in order to reduce barriers faced by units of government, faith-based organizations, and nonprofits seeking to host and sponsor temporary emergency encampments. They also discussed a date for declaring a Public Health State of Emergency Related to Homelessness.
A threat to progress from the city itself
On July 2, however, something happened that threatened to contradict the Council’s progress. Park Rangers notified residents of the Wheeler Street encampment (also known as the Nickerson Encampment) that the City of Olympia was going to evict them. On July 12 they received a written notice from the City giving them until July 19 to find someplace else to go.
Residents did not receive the notice because of complaints from neighbors or because of the actions and behaviors of the residents. It was the action of the City of Olympia. The city had purchased the property from the private owner and was evicting the residents because the encampment now violated Olympia’s ban on camping on city property.
Residents of the encampment had contacted Just Housing, a local grassroots group advocating for unhoused Olympians, as soon as they received verbal notice on July 2. Just Housing had been working with residents of this encampment for months to remove accumulated garbage and build relationships.
By the time residents received written notice on July 12, Just Housing, along with encampment residents and supportive community members, had already reached out to City Council members and staff, advocating for them to intervene in the eviction. The crucial point that Just Housing conveyed to the City was that evicting the residents of the Nickerson Encampment would contradict the values and direction the City had just committed to in regard to responding to the homelessness crisis.
Members of Just Housing and the Nickerson Encampment were able to make their case during public comment at a Council meeting two days before the scheduled eviction, the same meeting where the Council was to vote on declaring the Public Health State of Emergency.
Time to address broader policy issues
The work and advocacy by Just Housing and the community was successful. First, The Council unanimously voted to declare the Public Health State of Emergency. Next, the Council directed city staff to stay the eviction until further discussion. In addition, several Council members have questioned the city’s current policies and practices related to encampments on City property and advocated for change, and proposed to discuss the future of the Nickerson Encampment and the broader issue of city policies and practices related to encampments. At Study Session the following week, City staff recommended that the eviction of the Nickerson Encampment be indefinitely delayed.
Residents are now being given a chance to find community partners, to further address challenges like trash and environmental impacts at the encampment, and to show that problem-solving rather than problem-moving is an approach that can work.
Though no decisions have been made about general changes to policy and practices related to encampments, multiple council members have voiced concern about current practices and their belief that changes must be made. This indicates that discussion of reforms to city policies leading to positive action on homelessness will continue.
In the meantime, the Nickerson Encampment will serve, by default, as a pilot project that is likely to inform future discussions and actions.
Just Housing and residents of the encampment are working together to find other partners- faith based organizations, non-profits, and invested community members- who are willing and able to support the encampment in meeting the basic needs of their residents.
Specifically, residents are looking for funds to cover needs like a dumpster, garbage disposal, and port-a-potties. Residents also hope to create a donation drop-off/distribution point at the encampment, where needed survival supplies can be distributed to residents as well as others who are surviving outdoors.
Olympia’s City Council members voted unanimously to declare a Public Health State of Emergency Related to Homelessness as part of a commitment to redirect efforts to address conditions for people who have lost their homes or otherwise found themselves with no roof over their heads. For 2018, the City of Olympia estimated 763 individuals were homeless in the urban hub, with 628 living in camps. This is an increase over prior years that appears to correlate with a sharp increase in rents in Thurston County.
Homelessness in our area affects persons of all ages: families with small children, youth, single adults, and elderly are all represented in the county’s most recent point-in-time count. Another alarming element of the 2018 report is that in Thurston County, 1670 students (K-12) were homeless. In fact, the under-18 group represents 26% of Thurston County’s homeless population. Homelessness among students is at an all-time high all over Washington state.