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Homeless 'sweeps' cause worry in Olympia, where the shelter system is at half capacity

Parker Miles Blohm
In this January 2020 file photo, tents are pictured inside a homeless encampment in Olympia.

Port of Olympia officials and Thurston County sheriff’s deputies displaced an estimated eight unsheltered people from a wooded Tumwater property on Monday, sparking objections from activists concerned “sweeps” of camps add pressure to a shelter system already strained by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Thurston County sheriff’s deputies conducted the sweep on behalf of the port, which owns the property at Harper Street Southwest and 75th Avenue Southwest.

“This area is under lease option and the port has contractual obligations,” said Jennie Foglia-Jones, the port’s communications manager.

“The Port recognizes that the path from homelessness to a stable living and economic situation for any individual or group may well be complex,” Foglia-Jones said. “Still, our collective actions must be grounded in an orderly process and recognition of the rule of law."

Monday's sweep follows a string of actions in August that displaced or threatened to displace unsheltered people in the Olympia area:

  • Police in the City of Tumwater displaced four to five people from an encampment along Percival Creek. They moved across the creek to an area within the City of Olympia, according to the advocacy group Just Housing.
  • Officials with the City of Lacey and the state Department of Transportation held off on plans to remove two encampments near Interstate 5 exit ramps, home to an estimated 33 people, after Just Housing raised objections.
  • Officials with the state Department of Enterprise Services displaced 29 people living in RVs, vans, trucks and cars along Deschutes Parkway in Olympia to make way for road work. After the work wrapped up, unpaved areas where some people had parked stayed off-limits due to damage state officials attributed to the vehicles. Paved areas re-opened for parking. 

The actions caused worry in Olympia, where all of Thurston County’s homeless shelters are located, and where nonprofits have stretched themselves to meet demands created by the pandemic. 
They also highlight a dynamic in which sweeps in outlying, suburban areas such as Lacey and Tumwater place a burden on city downtowns, such as Olympia’s, where shelters and other services are concentrated.

People displaced from their campsites across Thurston County may seek help from Olympia organizations that are already at capacity, service providers said. 

“There’s never been a time that there has ever been an ample amount of alternative options for people, and that’s especially true right now,” said Meg Martin, executive director of Interfaith Works, which operates a shelter in Olympia with room for 46 people.

“I think everybody is really tired and I think morale is kind of low, if I’m being honest,” Martin said of service providers. “It’s just really difficult to know how many people are really struggling and need support, and somehow the best we can do collectively is increase outreach and have people stay where they’re at.”

Last winter, Olympia had 400 shelter beds. That number has been cut to just under 200, due to requirements that shelters spread out beds to comply with social-distancing guidelines, said Keylee Marineau, who coordinates homelessness services for Thurston County.

“Our shelter system is just completely overburdened and under resourced,” Marineau said. “We’re at half capacity right now.”

Tye Gundel, an organizer with Just Housing, said sweeps of encampments may complicate efforts to deal with the overlapping emergencies of a coronavirus pandemic and wildfires burning across the state.

“The effect of these sweeps is leaving people without anywhere to go not only in this pandemic, but also we’re having an air-quality emergency, with the smoke,” Gundel said. “The tents themselves don’t provide enough protection, but it’s better than being completely out in it. Right now, sweeps are an especially bad idea because it is so important for people’s health to be able to have a stable place where they can shelter in place if need be."

The sweep of the port-owned property lasted all day, said Lt. Carla Carter of the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office. "We wanted to slow it down and make sure it’s right,” Carter said.

Gundel said people began living at the site roughly a month ago, after some were evicted during the pandemic from the Olympia Inn hotel.

Some of the people displaced Monday accepted offers of two-day stays at nearby hotels paid for by the sheriff’s department, Carter said. None accepted any of the longer-term options that were available, such as a tent in Olympia’s “mitigation site” camping area.

Carter said one woman, who did not live in the camp, was arrested early in the day after she became “volatile” while objecting to the sweep.

“There were many advocacy groups that came to advocate for proper care,” Carter said. “I’m not sure which group she was affiliated with, but she came on site and made it a little bit more difficult to transition.”

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.