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Why did hundreds of tents suddenly appear in downtown Olympia?

Will James
An encampment on Franklin Street in downtown Olympia.

State lawmakers returning to Olympia for this year’s legislative session are arriving in a city transformed by homelessness.

Since August, the number of tents and makeshift shelters in Olympia’s downtown has grown tenfold, from around 30 to more than 300. Rarely, if ever, has a local city’s homelessness crisis seemed to accelerate so quickly.

Throughout the fall, three or so city-owned parking lots grew into sprawling encampments. Two people who lived in one of the encampments died last month, a 48-year-old woman after a medical emergency and a 48-year-old man of complications from a chronic illness. Police say a man was stabbed during a fight in the same encampment Thursday. 

"People just came out of the shadows, came out of the woodwork, and they were visible," said Colin DeForrest, who was hired last year to oversee the city's response to homelessness.

"For so long, the unwritten agreement was, if you’re homeless, just hide," DeForrest said. "And as long as we don’t have to see you and deal with you, then we’re good to go. Thank goodness that has changed, because even though it is really sometimes hard to see this, it lets us understand as a community and as a society, 'Hey, we have a real issue here.'"

That "unwritten agreement" was altered in September, when a federal Court of Appeals decision from a case out of Boise, Idaho, made it harder for police to crack down on illegal camping. The ruling meant cities could no longer penalize people for sleeping on public property if there aren't enough shelter beds to absorb them. 
DeForrest said people quickly realized that if they set up camp in downtown parking lots, police would not force them to move. He said city officials accepted the parking lots as relatively "safe" alternatives to wooded areas or shop doorways.

Rising housing costs have driven more people into homelessness in Olympia, a familiar pattern in West Coast cities.

But the changes in downtown Olympia are more a result of people moving from remote campsites to a centralized location, says DeForrest and leaders of some of the city's nonprofit service providers. 

"You saw a lot of individuals that were hiding," DeForrest said. "Individuals out of the woods, individuals underneath bridges, suddenly they felt freedom and they were emboldened to come out and say, ‘Hey, I guess I can stay downtown right now and it’s alright.'" 


Robert Lytle, 26, said he and his wife were among the first people to settle downtown. They had been sleeping in the woods and in shop doorways. Lytle would carry their tent and all of their belongings on his back.

"I did it day in and day out," he said. "Picked it up every morning, pulled it all out at night. I got tired of it, so I set my tent up in this lot over here. There was only like three or four of us at that point."

Suddenly he and his wife had a place to leave their tent during the day. Plus, downtown, they were  surrounded by food banks and other services.

Soon, others joined them.

"Ten tents popped up overnight," Lytle said. "Then they started crowding us in, bigger and bigger tents."

He said he began to feel uncomfortable and unsafe. Lytle, who is recovering from drug addiction, said he was surrounded by people using drugs. He watched fights break out.

Residents from across the city took notice, as well. Before long, the encampments were the most hotly debated issue in Olympia. People lined up at City Council meetings to talk about their fear of going downtown. 

"In the past few months, I’ve witnessed four separate occasions of people openly shooting up drugs," said one resident, Amy Rowley, at a council meeting in December. "My daughter and I have repeatedly encountered people acting in an unpredictable manner."

Another resident, Shayna Burmeister, told council members: "You sit up there, with beautiful wood behind a pretty desk, when your community is falling to pieces."


Meg Martin, who overcame neighborhood opposition to help found Olympia's Interfaith Works shelter several years ago, said the city has grappled with homelessness for a long time, but this moment stands out.

"A significant increase in visibility is really rattling our community because, for so many years, the cycle has been to move people into less visible places," she said. "I don’t believe our community has ever had to face this issue with such raw eyes as we are now."

Phil Owen, who leads Sidewalk, a nonprofit working to end homelessness in Thurston County, said the issue has been described as a crisis in Olympia since at least the 1990s.

"If you just dig back through the City Council priorities each year going back the last 20 years, you're going to see one of two things," Owen said. "It'll be either 'homelessness' or 'downtown,' which is another code word for 'homelessness.'"

"The thing that people have been saying so long as I've been in this field is, 'This is the worst that it has ever been,'" he added. "It has always been a crisis, and we have got to actually start treating homelessness like the emergency that it is." 

If anything has changed, he said, it's that the recent court decision, and the resulting concentration of people camping downtown, has made homelessness harder to ignore. "The visibility skyrocketed effectively overnight," he said.

Both Owen and Martin said the encampments have actually reduced demand on services, like a nonprofit-run daytime drop-in center, because people can now stay in their tents or shelters during the day without fear of police displacing them.

"The day room is not as overwhelmed," Owen said, referring to a large room at Olympia's Providence Community Care Center where people can access showers or just get out of the elements. "Folks are doing more for themselves in staying dry and warm."

Martin said the crisis represents a turning point for the city, or at least the potential for one. 

"In my own personal experience, the greatest growth and transformation has happened during times of intense tragedy and pain," she said. "And I believe that that’s where we’re at as a community right now."


In December, city officials cleared one of the encampments and, in its place, created a sanctioned camp known as the "mitigation site." 

Just under 90 people live in 73 green and white tents provided by the city on a fenced-in parking lot. Officials hope the site will serve as a step on the path out of homelessness, and also bring a level of security and supervision to downtown. Lytle and his wife were among the first to move in. 

Owners of nearby businesses filed a lawsuit last month in an attempt to shut down the mitigation site, but a judge has allowed it to remain. The city is expanding the site this week to accommodate 30 to 40 more tents.

"We’re trying to get a lot of the business owners to understand that the exact thing you don’t want in the downtown — the exact lawlessness, messiness, health and safety concerns — the way we’re going to mitigate those is through secured, managed sites like this," said DeForrest, who oversees the city's homelessness response.

He hopes residents will graduate from the mitigation site to a tiny house village the city plans to set up about a mile away next month.

From there, he said, they might move into housing built with revenue from a new sales tax Olympia voters approved last February. But city leaders say those units, which are to be geared toward people who need on-site services for physical or mental disabilities, could be years away from completion. 

One of the two "hosts" paid to help manage the mitigation site, a Navy veteran who goes by the nickname Chile, said the camp has been relatively peaceful in the month since it opened. 

It's a place where people have found respite from the more chaotic environments of the unsanctioned camps, said Chile, 56, who has been homeless in Olympia for about 10 years. They can leave belongings in their tents without as much fear of theft. Chile has put in place an informal 10 o'clock curfew, which he said residents have generally adhered to.

"They’re sticking to the program," Chile said. "They’re not really pushing boundaries."


Chile said the city's current approach to homelessness is preferable to crackdowns that displace people.

But he wonders if the concentration of services downtown, and the ease of obtaining food and clothes from local nonprofits, attracts people from outside Olympia.

"This is homeless heaven," Chile said. "I’ve been saying that for 10 years. It's too much free stuff, sometimes."

DeForrest said it’s too simple to say this moment was caused by outsiders flocking to Olympia. But he does believe some people have come from elsewhere.

"I’ll be completely transparent. I worked in Tacoma before here, and I saw more than a handful of individuals from Tacoma that were down here," said DeForrest, who used to manage homelessness efforts for the city of Tacoma.

"When I asked, ‘Why are you down here?' They just said, ‘We just ended up here, you know?’" DeForrest said. "I mean, so there definitely was something to, ‘Hey, have you heard about what’s going on in Olympia?'" 

With homelessness crossing borders, and cities left largely on their own to grapple with it, he said, it's time for the state to play a more central role. 

From where he's speaking outside Olympia's mitigation site, the state's Capitol Dome is visible above the tents and the roofs of downtown.

"That’s really kind of the elephant in the room, is how has the state not at least stepped up to the table and said, ‘Hey, we understand that this is going on around our state and we want to try to work with you?'" DeForrest said.

"I don’t know how this isn’t a state emergency, honestly."



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.