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'Empathetic' and 'afraid': Homelessness dominates Olympia's race for mayor

Candidates for Olympia mayor, Nathaniel Jones and Cheryl Selby, speak to voters at a forum on Oct. 17, 2019, at Garfield Elementary School.
Will James
Candidates for Olympia mayor, Nathaniel Jones and Cheryl Selby, speak to voters at a forum on Oct. 17 at Garfield Elementary School.

Homelessness is at the top of many voters’ minds across the Puget Sound region heading into the Nov. 5 general election.

A few years ago, frustration around the issue might have been contained in Seattle — where nearly two-thirds of residents disapprove of the response by Washington’s largest city, according to a recent poll by Crosscut and Elway.

But homelessness, and the closely related issue of rising housing costs, are dominant political issues in communities once considered havens of affordability: Tacoma, Puyallup, Burien and Aberdeen among them.

And one city stands out. To Olympia voters, the race for mayor is a referendum on how the city has responded to a sharp rise in the number of unsheltered people in the city's downtown. 

"Homelessness is the number one issue in Olympia," said Larry Dzieza, an Olympia resident who listened to candidates speak at an Oct. 17 forum.

"It just has appeared to be almost exponential," another attendee, Jennifer Grant, said of the rise in homelessness in Washington's capital city. 

In late 2018, the number of unsheltered people living in tents in downtown Olympia swelled from around 30 to more than 300 in a matter of weeks, between August and December. The spike occurred as city officials paused enforcement of anti-camping rules, a result of a federal Court of Appeals decision out of a case from Boise, Idaho.

Thurston County's annual census of the homeless population found the number of unsheltered people tripled between 2017 and 2019, though improved counting methods could account for some of that rise.

The sudden visibility of homelessness spurred months of debate, with some residents expressing fear of walking downtown and demanding police intervention while others urged compassion.

The mayor's race hinges on how the candidates navigate those intense feelings.


Cheryl Selby, a former downtown business owner who has served as mayor since 2015, is running for a second term.

She's pointing to a flurry of emergency actions on homelessness the city has taken before and since the spike downtown. 

That includes the creation of a sanctioned camp in December where about 120 people now live in tents provided by the city; the construction of a "tiny house village" in February with room for about 40 more people; and an outreach effort to solicit ideas about a long-term response to homelessness, which has received input from more than 700 residents.

But Olympia's leaders haven't gotten the cooperation they wanted from leaders of neighboring cities and the county. Olympia officials hoped other communities would open sanctioned camps, as well.

Olympia, a city of some 50,000 people, can only do so much on its own, Selby said. 

"I'm a very positive person, so I always have hope that things are going to get better," Selby said in an interview. "That said, it's like two steps forward, one step back. People want to make it really simple, but it's one of the most complex issue of our times." 

Selby faces a challenge from one of her colleagues on the City Council, Nathaniel Jones.

Jones, a self-described "wonk" who used to oversee utilities and grounds at the state capital campus, said voters are frustrated with the city's response to homelessness and want a change in leadership. 

"I simply feel I can do a better job of leading both the city and its resources... and the community through a pretty tough period," Jones said in an interview. "I don't fault my opponent for the job that she's done up to this point, but I definitely feel as though we need new direction, we need new energy."

Jones said Olympia needs to accelerate the pace of housing construction to make way for population growth.

He also said the city may need to provide more accountability to nonprofit service providers by linking funding to results in some way. 


The deepest split between Selby and Jones appeared at a City Council meeting last month, during a debate over the fate of an encampment under the Fourth Avenue Bridge.

City officials planned to clear away the encampment and displace the 20 or so people living there. They cited a recent fire in the camp, concerns over pollution in nearby waters, and the potential for damage to the bridge itself.

But residents of the camp said they wanted to stay, and leaders of local churches said they'd help them create rules and a governance structure. 

Selby agreed to postpone the action, known as a "sweep," but wanted to allow only a limited extension to give clergy a chance to make inroads with people in the camp.

Jones proposed allowing residents to stay there as long as it took for the city to find a "comparable, safe, and appropriate" alternative site.

Selby criticized the open-ended nature of Jones' proposal, and blamed advocacy groups for emboldening people in the encampment to "refuse services."

In her remarks at the meeting, she echoed business owners and others losing patience with the visibility of homelessness in Olympia.

"We're conflating... a lot of behaviors that aren't related to homelessness," Selby said. "They're just bad behaviors. And so I don't want to demonize the homeless population in our community. They're not all bad people. There are other people out there that are exploiting those homeless people. It's about behavior." 

Jones echoed arguments made by advocacy groups that criticize the displacement of camps. 

"In this scenario, the bridge campers would likely relocate to downtown streets and neighborhood greenbelts," Jones said. "I don’t see how that’s an improvement. This proposal just pushes people around. It takes Olympia back to the days of whack-a-mole enforcement." 

Council members voted 5-1 in favor of Jones' proposal. Selby's was the only "no" vote. The encampment remains in place, though city officials plan to relocate residents to a different site. 

The mayor, in an interview, pointed to the vote as a sign of how she differs from Jones philosophically.

"I've kind of been known as that person that holds space for the middle," Selby said. "I'm not an extremist. And I think I'm in the majority in this community."


Voters, in interviews, said they are grappling with what to think about homelessness: how to weigh economic factors, like the rising cost of housing, with human ones, like drug use and mental illness.

"It's not just housing, it's other things," said Beth Tribwell, a retired financial advisor who was at the Oct. 17 forum. She said she understands some people simply can't afford rent, but she said there are other factors, such as addiction, that aren't being addressed.

"It seems like, rather than destroying our downtown economy and all those things that some more direct help would be useful," she said. "It seems like we're just letting these things happen because it's too complicated. And it is."

Other voters said they're frustrated that Olympia seems to be bearing the brunt of a regional crisis.

Thurston County's 2019 survey of the homeless population found most of the county's homeless population lives in Olympia, but more than half of them became homeless in nearby cities, other parts of the state, and sometimes elsewhere in the U.S. 

Downtown Olympia has a concentration of shelter beds and other services homeless people rely on, while few or none exist in surrounding communities.

"In a dynamic repeated across the country," the report said, "homeless people from small towns and rural areas are forced to migrate to areas with higher concentrations of services, shelter and transitional housing."

That's a dynamic Dzieza, another forum attendee, wished politicians talked about more. 

"We have an unfair burden, the financial cost and social cost of it," he said. "People are concerned about crime. People are concerned about their quality of life downtown."

Dzieza said he also wanted the candidates to acknowledge the enormity of the problem. 

"What I was looking for, and I didn't hear it, was the mayor candidates saying, 'Here's some reality for you: The problem is way beyond the capacity of the city of Olympia,'" he said. "No matter how big your heart is, your purse isn't that big." 

But Dzieza said he'd likely vote for Selby, saying her views were more in line with his own. 

For Tribwell, it's harder to vote for an incumbent, given how she feels at the moment. She said she's among the people who are now hesitant to go downtown.

"I mean, I'm very empathetic," she said. "And I also realize I'm afraid."


Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.