Victoria Hall, Staff Writer
After a disruptive year for local businesses, the City of Olympia has focused its efforts on clearing out unsanctioned homeless camps. Last year, Olympia residents watched a shocking influx of visible homelessness transform the city. Encampments began to pop up on main streets, and in months, 30 tents became 300. Videos posted on social media showed city blocks laden with tents, tarps, and garbage. In 2018, the Point-in-Time (PIT) Homeless Census measured a 56 percent increase in homelessness from the year before, and the Olympia City Council declared a “public health emergency.” The issued ordinance described homelessness as an “exigent threat to human health.”
Declining sanitation and disruptive behavior caused local businesses to suffer-some even shut down. Karla Davis, former owner of Olympia Flea Market, shared her daily experiences during an interview with The Olympian. She reported having to clean human feces, hypodermic needles, and garbage from outside her shop.
“It got so bad that we had to start bringing weapons in and out,” Davis said. “We felt like something really bad was going to happen.”
Eventually, Davis closed the store permanently. Another restaurant owner told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson that he regularly had to break up altercations that almost crashed through his windows. In one of them, a homeless man swung a dog like a weapon.
“It’s insanity — there’s a difference between an eclectic population and crazed behavior,” he said.
These reports are consistent with Rants Group’s decision to cease production on their planned luxury condominiums, citing “social climate” and “safety concerns” as major driving factors.
Other business owners have tried to be proactive in addressing the issue, but faced resistance from local organizations. Last December, some businesses hired private security guards, but reported harassment from Olympia Solidarity Group, a local activist group.
“Twenty of them with masks circled the two unarmed working-class safety team officers,” Amy Evans, a commercial real estate broker in Olympia, told KVI’s John Carlson. “[They] threatened them to the point where they feared for their life and Pacific Coast Security canceled the contract [with the business owners] because [security officers] were not feeling supported.”
Other businesses like Zeigler Welding, Aztec Bowling, and C&H Construction have filed lawsuits against the City of Olympia for opening a sanctioned encampment and not enforcing trespassing or nuisance laws.
Legal complications briefly slowed city progress, but mitigative measures have resumed. The massive unsanctioned camp on State Ave. was torn down and cleared out in March. Beginning in August, the city launched a six month project to remove garbage from Thurston County streets and clear out other settlements. Plans are being made to clear the camp beneath the Fourth Ave. Bridge by Sept. 11, currently occupied by at least 30 people.
“We’ve heard from the community a lot. It’s very visible from the road and it’s very close to neighborhood[s],” Kellie Purse Braseth, the City of Olympia Strategic Communications Director told KIRO 7. “We were concerned about contamination in the water, we were concerned about the bridge infrastructure.”
Tests on nearby water confirmed the presence of fecal coliform, indicating a higher risk of pathogens and environmental damage. It also appeared that people were digging at the footing of the bridge.
“They’re making false accusations to kick us out,” argues Nichols Alexander, a camper who is reluctant to leave. “This isn’t our damage and they want to turn around and damage us even more.”
The city has been working on more permanent solutions to offer the homeless. After declaring a public health emergency in 2018, the city partnered with Seattle-based Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI) on a project to build a village of tiny homes on Plum Street. Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater, and Thurston County (LOTT) Clean Water Alliance donated funds for a hygiene trailer, and hundreds of community volunteers worked together over the winter to get the village up and running. Plum Street Tiny House Village opened in February, offering 29 homes for people previously living in tents. Occupants work with case managers to identify barriers to stable housing, and create plans for self-sufficiency. The village currently houses 33 people. Similar projects are being planned in hopes of providing more stability and safety to those currently on the streets. The city council recently provided $1.1 million to build a facility offering supportive housing and shelter on Martin Way East. Thurston County currently harbors a recorded 800 homeless individuals –slightly less than last year. The city hopes that by winter, more will have access to roofs, walls, and warmth.