Olympia Democratic Socialists of America has unanimously endorsed Just Housing's call to end sweeps of homeless encampents. We must embrace a solution to homelessness that rejects punishing those already suffering and begins and ends with a simple guarantee of a safe, stable, comfrotable home for every person.
Dear Olympia friends, family, and neighbors,
Just Housing believes in a vision of Olympia where every person has a legal, safe and appropriate place to live, has access to basic essential services, and where people do not fear or judge one another based on class or housing status.
We have also always understood that the resources of our community have limits and that effective solutions take time to materialize. It will likely be years before we have enough housing and shelter options for all in need of them. The question we still see before us is, how will we treat those trying to survive in the waiting room?
The waiting room is in our woods, our greenbelts and parking lots and under our bridges. It’s on our streets, in alcoves and in vans and cars. We believe that our entire community, particularly our government’s leaders, are accountable to ensuring that people in the “waiting room” are treated as we should treat all humans, with kindness and care. This is an active responsibility - to provide the basic supports that will let people survive, with the least harm done possible, while they wait for long-term solutions to become realities.
This is why we have continued to ask city leaders to stop sweeps, to decriminalize simply existing in the waiting room. To Legalize Survival. This is why we have continued to ask them to truly address public health and safety concerns by providing access to hygiene and sanitation services, by supporting expanded outreach services to encampments, and by working with encampment residents to problem-solve around challenges instead of resorting to sweeps as a first response. We call this Shelter-in-Place.
Last May, The Olympia City Council passed Resolution M-1942, which directed staff to create legal camping options for houseless individuals and committed The City to responses to homelessness centered in humility, continued learning, harm reduction, anti-oppression, and trauma-informed care. A State of Emergency related to Homelessness was declared by the City of Olympia and Thurston County. Houseless folks began camping downtown and, for the first time, weren’t swept. Also for the first time, the City Council intervened in the eviction of a camp, empowering the start of a pilot project with the potential to change how our city responds to encampments. Immediately after, the Council pushed for a study session to learn about local ordinances that criminalize homelessness and to begin conversations about changing them.
Towards the end of summer, something changed. The Artesian Commons was closed and has remained closed ever since. Laws that criminalize homelessness were enforced with more tenacity than they had in years and The City announced intentions to sweep the downtown encampments that had expanded to 300+ people.
Their direction changed again when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals made their determination on the case of Martin vs Boise. They found that it is unconstitutional to criminalize people for performing life sustaining activities, like sleeping and resting, in public when they have no legal alternatives. The City paused all sweeps and, for the first time, began providing basic sanitation support to people living at encampments. A significant number of people, mobilized largely by fear of and disgust with the camps, began demanding that City leaders make our city “safe” again by removing those camping in the downtown core. The private security contract facilitated by the Olympia Downtown Alliance to prevent camping in storefronts was cancelled as a result of activism. Tensions and divides in our community grew to an all time high. The direction of The City’s response to homelessness became more confusing and uncertain.
After voting against repealing the City’s Camping Ban and No Sit/Lie ordinance, The Council continued to assure advocates for decriminalization that policies related to sweeps would be changed. They moved forward with plans for opening the Mitigation Site and the Plum Street Tiny Home Village. City staff invited Just Housing and service providers to the table, to work together on developing and implementing these solutions. These groups worked together on a plan for opening the Mitigation Site and for how residents would be placed. Rumors about possible loopholes in Martin vs Boise began surfacing and, in the dead of winter, sweeps began again—justified not by the violation of camping ordinances, but for the sake of public health and safety. The first to go was half of the Smart Lot, followed by B Avenue and 7th and Jefferson. In the middle of a Code Blue Weather Emergency, the remainder of the Smart Lot camp was destroyed- effectively wiping out unsanctioned camping in downtown Olympia.
We continue to be the only city in our county with shelter options for unhoused individuals and now have more legal shelter options than we have ever had before. Our City government has moved forward with efforts that we never thought they would and are continuing to work towards developing a long term community-driven plan for addressing homelessness.
Unfortunately the fear of “the other” in our community remains strong. Calls for our city leaders to respond to homelessness with a heavy fist are still loud, though the language of obvious prejudice and disgust has morphed into demands for “accountability” and “tough love.” Displaced downtown campers have moved back to the woods, beneath the bridges, and along the tracks, causing existing encampments to swell and giving rise to increased complaints about camps that were forgotten about in the midst of the push to “take back downtown.” The City has made it clear that they plan to continue with sweeps, when “the time is right.” The Cold Weather season is over, meaning that dozens of emergency shelter beds will no longer be available. The opening of a second Mitigation Site is still months away.
So much has changed, but many things have not. Hundreds of our community members continue to be without a legal and appropriate place to find shelter. Ordinances remain in place that criminalize their survival. People are still swept without being offered legal and appropriate alternatives, adequate time and notice, or adequate storage and moving support.
Months ago, we still had enough trust in our city leaders to continue finding patience every time they asked us to wait—assuring us that changes of encampment policies and practices would come. But they never did. There was always a reason why it wasn’t the right time, there was always something more important.
Over the past year, there have been too many missed and neglected opportunities for change. Enough that many of us seriously doubt or no longer have trust that our city leaders are committed to the same values and vision we hold, or those they committed to almost one year ago.
Hope for a better path forward....
Where we still find hope, is in working with the resilient and compassionate people of our community that have shown us what is possible when we work together to build a better world, even, at times, without the support of existing institutions and governments.
We have hope in the Nickerson Encampment, the camp that the council stopped the eviction of this past July. After the stay of eviction, The United Churches of Olympia stepped up to work with Just Housing and the residents to problem-solve around and to support basic needs. Today, the encampment residents have access to garbage and laundry services, potable water, safe heat, and showers through Westminster Presbyterian. It’s not perfect, but there is no question that the encampment is better off than it was a year ago and that the residents are better off now than they would have been had they been displaced. Now we have an example to point to when people ask us what Shelter-in-Place—a more humane, compassionate, and effective alternative to sweeps—can look like. We can show how it effectively addresses public health and safety concerns, whereas sweeps simply move those concerns to a new location while harming those already hurting the most.
We have hope in the encampments, the churches, and the organizations that are reaching out to us and each other to expand the Shelter-in-Place model beyond Nickerson and to expand outreach efforts and support to area encampments. This is an effort that has potential to positively impact all Olympians. It is also one that will be seriously impacted and harmed if we continue with sweeps-as-usual.
Like many in our community, Just Housing is struggling with uncertainty about where our community is going. Yet, we continue to find clarity, hope, and resilience in our vision of where we believe we can go if we find the love, strength and courage to do so.