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Judge orders Olympia to stop allowing people into sanctioned homeless camp

Will James
The City of Olympia opened a sanctioned encampment on Dec. 10, hours before a judge ordered city officials to stop moving people in.

A Thurston County judge ordered the City of Olympia to stop moving homeless people into a sanctioned encampment downtown just hours after the camp opened Monday.

Superior Court Judge James Dixon, in a court hearing that took place at the same time the encampment was filling up two miles away, partially sided with four anonymous business owners who filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the city's plans.

The business owners asked for the camp to be emptied while a temporary restraining order is in place, but the judge instead ordered the camp to be frozen at its current level of occupancy. 

Olympia officials and their nonprofit partners moved roughly 100 people into 73 tents in the hours before the order came down, said Colin DeForrest, the city's homeless response coordinator.  

He said the encampment has room for about 40 more tents, but city officials had to turn a line of people away after they got word of the order. 

"A lot of them have been waiting for this for quite some time," DeForrest said in an interview at the site Monday. He added that having to "push the pause button again is really unfortunate." 

The encampment, dubbed a "mitigation site" by city officials, is meant to help the city gain control over a worsening homelessness crisis in downtown Olympia. 

Between August and October, the number of tents in the city's downtown swelled from around 30 to more than 300, city officials say.

Hundreds of tents and makeshift shelters are crammed onto city-owned parking lots within blocks of each other near the Olympia Transit Center, making for a striking scene. 

"It wasn't so bad here when I was living here a few years ago," said Lilith Medicci, who is homeless and recently moved back to Olympia from Utah. "There was more availability in getting into the shelters. A tent city like this wasn't a thing."

Credit Will James / KNKX
An unsanctioned encampment in downtown Olympia on Dec. 10, 2018.

Olympia's leaders cleared an unsanctioned encampment from a city-owned lot to make way for the sanctioned camp. The city fenced the site and is providing tents to people living there. 

Olympia spent $75,000 preparing the encampment, an attorney for the city said during the court hearing. 

DeForrest said he was expecting about 30 people to move in Monday, but got a much larger response than he anticipated. He helped the City of Tacoma set up a similar site in 2017, when he was managing that city's response to homelessness. 

"Usually, the first day, there's a lot of skepticism," DeForrest said. "So a lot of people are on the outskirts, kind of looking in, waiting to see what happens in the sites. Luckily, that didn't happen today. It was kind of quite the opposite." 

The level of interest, he said, "gives you an idea of how severe the situation is, how much of an emergency this is" and said the city likely needs to open a second sanctioned encampment.

The court decision, he added, presents a fresh obstacle to city officials trying to control the situation.

"By putting a pause on this, we're turning all of these individuals who did not get in yet back across the street or into other unsanctioned camps that are, frankly, unsafe," DeForrest said.

The lawsuit was filed against the City of Olympia last Friday by four people who said they own businesses within 500 feet of the sanctioned encampment.

They filed the lawsuit under "John Doe" pseudonyms, saying they feared retaliation from "domestic terrorists that are fomenting trouble amongst the homeless, and have essentially terrorized the City of Olympia Police Department into ceasing to enforce safety on Olympia's streets, and maintain order in town." 

The business owners claim city officials violated their own rules for setting up a sanctioned encampment. The regulations, passed in 2008, require 30 days' notice to nearby property owners, which the business owners said they did not get. The rules also cap the number of people in a sanctioned encampment to 40. 

Olympia's leaders waived the rules Friday, citing a "public health emergency" City Council members declared around homelessness in July. 

The lawsuit accuses city officials of allowing encampments to proliferate downtown.

"The streets have become unsafe," the lawsuit states. "The camps are public health catastrophes, and are already taxing public safety resources with aid calls, assaults, and illegal activities. They are sources of disease and refuges for dissolute behavior." 

A resident of a downtown encampment, who goes by the nickname "Tall Sara" and declined to give her full name, said living on the streets is dangerous. But she said the causes of homelessness are more complex than many people criticizing homeless people acknowledge. 

She said she was married and living in a house a few years ago, before her then-husband became addicted to opiates after undergoing surgeries. She said his addiction led to her being homeless for the past five years in Yakima, Aberdeen and Olympia. 

"A lot of people don't understand what's going on and don't understand they are one, maybe two paychecks away from being homeless," she said. "I was a mom who wasn't prepared to lose anything, and I lost everything." 

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.