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Olympia leaders, canceling sweep of homeless camp, wonder if encampments are a new normal

The Fourth Avenue Bridge encampment, as it was seen this summer before a number of residents left amid plans for a sweep.
Courtesy of the City of Olympia
The Fourth Avenue Bridge encampment, as it was seen this summer before a number of residents left amid plans for a sweep.

Olympia City Council members canceled a sweep of a homeless encampment hours before it was scheduled to begin Wednesday morning, a victory for camp residents who waged a last-ditch effort to remain in place.

The decision came amid an outcry from residents of the encampment and their supporters, and assurances from leaders of a local church that they would help oversee the site.

City Council members voted Tuesday evening to allow the encampment of about 20 people to remain under the Fourth Avenue Bridge until a more suitable site is found.

"I’m hoping to work with you, and to better our community" Opie Taylor, a resident of the camp, told City Council members after the vote. "Thank you very much, from the bottom of my heart."

Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby objected to the decision. She said she was willing to postpone the sweep for a limited time to give clergy a chance to work with the residents, but disagreed with open-ended nature of the City Council’s move.

"I believe the current campers are still there because they refuse to move to a managed situation because they’ve been emboldened to refuse services by the very people who pretend to have their best interests in mind," Selby said, referring to Olympia's city-managed "mitigation site" camp downtown.

The mayor criticized activists who have been organizing residents of the camp.

"We’ll be setting ourselves up for more of these tactics whenever this group or others don’t get its way," Selby said. "You don’t reward a toddler in the candy aisle for throwing a fit."

Council member Nathaniel Jones, who is challenging Selby in a mayoral race, was the one who proposed allowing residents to stay under the bridge until a "comparable, safe, and appropriate" alternative site is found.

He called the planned sweep a return "to the days of whack-a-mole enforcement."

"As proposed, the city would simply empty the camp, period," Jones said at the meeting. "In this scenario, the bridge campers would likely relocate to downtown streets and neighborhood greenbelts. I don’t see how that’s an improvement."

City officials had planned to sweep, or clear away the camp while forcing people to leave, Wednesday morning. Officials cited a tent that recently burned near a cluster of propane tanks, digging they said threatened to damage the bridge, and signs of fecal coliform bacteria in nearby water.

The encampment, under a main thoroughfare to downtown Olympia, grew to several dozen people in recent months as officials disbanded other camps in the city. But many residents left after the city gave notice of the sweep three weeks ago.

The remaining residents of the camp said the city’s concerns were exaggerated, and many of the people who had caused problems had left. They said they had created a safe, stable community and wanted to stay together.

"I provided a sense of self-confidence, self-love, and safety," said Nichole Alexander, an unofficial leader of the camp. "If nothing else, just a safe place to put your head down at night where everyone’s watching your back for you when you’re sleeping."

The Rev. Amy LaCroix, pastor of Olympia’s First Christian Church, is leading an effort to provide oversight and support to the camp. 

"We’ll put a group together that will be willing to meet with the leadership of the camp each week to help guide them and work with them on cleaning up and getting the camp stable, and having a really strong leadership and strong rules," LaCroix said in an interview.

Olympia’s leaders have grappled with a spike in unsanctioned camps downtown since late last year, when city officials paused sweeps for several weeks as a result of a federal appellate court decision. During that period, the number of tents downtown swelled from around 30 to more than 300.

Since then, city officials have created the mitigation site downtown, where more than 100 people live in tents on city property, and built a tiny house village for about 40 people. They've also pushed officials with the county and neighboring cities to play a larger role in addressing homelessness regionally.

The debate at Tuesday’s City Council meeting veered into rarely explored territory: a discussion of whether camps of unsheltered people may be a long-term fixture of life in the U.S. that cities must accept as a new normal.

“I see them not so much as ‘unsanctioned encampments’ but ‘informal settlements’ or ‘informal communities,’ which is really normal in countries that have a wealth divide like ours does,” Olympia City Council member Renata Rollins said during the two-hour discussion.

Rollins was expressing a view held by some advocates for homeless people: that cities should focus on making existing encampments safer and more organized, rather than disbanding the makeshift communities.

"I think people that we call ‘homeless people’ might be better regarded as 'internally displaced persons,'" Rollins continued, calling the phenomenon "a very common thing in countries with a lot of poverty."

The view is controversial. City and state leaders up and down the West Coast commonly frame unsheltered homelessness as a problem local governments can solve, or at least reduce, by building enough housing and guiding people to social services.

But a starker perspective emerged at the City Council meeting.

"I truly believe that we are barely beginning to see the impact of the largest economic inequality in multiple generations in America," Council member Jim Cooper said.

"I don’t even believe that a regional approach will be enough to get us where we need," he added. "We need a national solution and a state solution."

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.