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Olympia clears away the last of its large unsanctioned encampments

Will James
Bulldozers clear away the remnants of tents and shelters from a parking lot in downtown Olympia on March 5, 2019.

The City of Olympia, which saw a striking rise in visible homelessness last year, cleared away the last of its large unsanctioned downtown encampments Tuesday after resuming enforcement against illegal camping in late January.

City officials had allowed hundreds of tents and shelters to remain in clusters downtown since the fall, after interpreting a September federal Court of Appeals decision out of Boise, Idaho, to mean cities had to meet a tough legal standard before displacing people from their campsites. 

But officials re-evaluated the case law, including newer rulings, and determined they could legally remove the encampments, said city spokeswoman Kellie Purce Braseth.

"What we concluded is that the facts in Olympia are not the facts in Boise," she said. "There have been rulings that do give cities the flexibility and authority to manage public spaces in a safe way."

City officials cleared at least three encampments in January and February. The last one remaining downtown was a dense cluster of tents and shelters on a city-owned parking lot at the corner of Franklin Street and State Avenue. 

Last Wednesday, dozens of people living on the lot received notice they had six days to move out.

Many scrambled Tuesday morning to pack up their belongings. Bobbi Hinton, who has been forced to move three times since city officials resumed clearing encampments in recent weeks, said some people worked through the night.

"That's what almost all of us had to do was stay awake all night long, and we barely got anywhere," Hinton said. "A lot of people are last minute stressed out and hoping we get a little bit longer." 

Hinton, who has a dog, said she would move to a remote area near some railroad tracks rather than stay in a shelter or the city's sanctioned encampment, located about a block away. She said she had been kicked out of the sanctioned camp after breaking the rules, by using a candle for warmth and then arguing with another resident about it.

Late in the morning, a pair of bulldozers began crushing vacant tents and shelters and depositing the remnants in dumpsters. 

Jeremy Scott, who lived on the lot for several months, had lobbied City Council members to allow people to stay at the site. He said residents had agreed to come up with a "code of ethical living" to address complaints business owners and others expressed about the site, such as trash accumulation. 

"We put on a good fight, but at the end of the day you got to figure it's all about politics and developers," Scott said.

Kristopher Mallotte lived on the lot before moving to the the city's santioned camp, but returned to his former home Tuesday to help others move. He said he supported the "eviction" because of the trash that had piled up.

"This is the face of the homeless community in downtown Olympia," Mallotte said. "It pains me to see this much garbage around my hometown."

Olympia's sanctioned encampment opened in December and houses more than a hundred people, many of them displaced from other camps around the city. In February, city officials opened a "tiny house village" about a mile away, where 12 people have moved so far. 

Braseth, the city's spokeswoman, said city officials offered alternatives to residents of the lot, including space at the sanctioned camp or beds in nearby shelters run by the Salvation Army and the Union Gospel Mission. She said there were 20 spaces available in the sanctioned camp, and 20 open beds in each of the shelters.

"It's important for our community to see that the city is responding in a way that's compassionate but also responsible," Braseth said. 

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.