Olympia Prioritizes 4th Avenue Bridge Homeless Encampment Over Community
City Council sets dangerous precedent in political battle over homelessness
In a surprise move at the September 10th Olympia City Council meeting, Council Member Nathaniel Jones made a last minute motion to delay the planned removal of the 4th Avenue Bridge homeless encampment scheduled for September 11th. Jones claimed that the city had not followed through on promises made to campers. The Council voted 5–1 to allow the camp the stay until a “comparable appropriate alternative” location can be found.
It is hard not to see this as political theater to boost Jones leadership profile as he challenges current Mayor Cheryl Selby in this fall’s election. Selby was the sole objector to the motion and the manner in which Jones broke protocol presenting it. Jones, claiming politics had nothing to do with his decision, nonetheless handed the encampment a political victory that comes at a cost to the community at large who overwhelmingly backed removal of the camp.
This includes the Squaxin Island Tribe who spoke out against the camp in a letter to Council, “the encampment under the bridge is having a significant impact on the Tribal community and it needs to be removed from this location.” The Tribe complains about theft of salmon, denigration of the shoreline and environmental pollution, saying “habitat recovery has taken a huge step backwards” and there has been “damage to the Tribe’s treaty protected rights.”
Squaxin concerns over salmon
For the Squaxin, it has to do with cultural heritage and “literally decades” of environmental remediation to sensitive areas. “To put it succinctly, we cannot imagine a worse location to allow an unauthorized encampment to persist.” Their work preserving salmon habitat “has been pursued with an understanding that protecting and restoring fish runs in Budd Inlet and the Deschutes River was as much about Olympia’s community values as it was about the Tribe’s treaty protected rights to those resources.”
The letter continued, “The shoreline landscape has been denigrated by people who apparently have little respect for our shared community resources. The area around the bridge has been denuded of vegetation that provides stability to the shoreline and helps to control erosion. Human waste is polluting our lands and waters resulting in a significant health emergency.
“Illegal drugs are adding another component of pollution to the environment, one that has been documented to have an adverse effect on fish and other aquatic resources. We have seen evidence that our Chinook salmon are being poached in the immediate vicinity of the encampment . . . The theft of salmon is a very personal affront to a people that regard the fish with spiritual reverence. No one has the right to intrude on the Tribe’s precious resources; not the misguided state officials of 50 years ago who fought with Tribal members about their fishing rights, and not the people of this encampment who are trashing the marine resources through their own misguided attempts to secure shelter.”
Worst location for a camp
On September 10th, Steve Hall, in a statement pausing removal of the camp said, “this is perhaps the worst location I can imagine for a temporary encampment at any time.” He voiced objections to Jones’ motion as presented, concerned about Council’s intent and how to direct staff. He said the motion was open to interpretation and this was not the appropriate venue to discuss legal objections. Council took his advice and streamlined the motion in order to pass it without delay or debate.
Jones felt the motion was necessary because the city had an agreement with the campers and was not following rules the city had set for itself. On reddit, Jones states, “The city tacitly condoned the campers moving to the bridge and announced that the campers would not be moved until there was somewhere for them to go . . . On September 10th the city reneged on that position and proposed to simply push the campers out into downtown alleys and neighborhood greenbelts. This is against established policy and is not good for businesses, neighbors, or homeless people.”
Hall is adamant no promises were made to campers and they have been told numerous times this was a temporary situation.
Colin DeForrest, Homeless Response Coordinator, in his September 10th update stated, “costs have to be weighed when it is unsafe for a community. At what point do you say . . . this spot is not working?” DeForrest also noted, “Our police are great,” and that in over a year, “in all the clean-ups we have done we have never arrested one individual.”
This counters Jones’ campaign literature where he positioned the eviction as a “police action that would take homeless folks and simply move them to the street.” In reality, this is a Code Enforcement action that requires police present to protect city workers. In reference to the camps, Jones claims “law enforcement and public services are on-site,” which contradicts campers accounts that police never come into the camp unless called.
Public Safety concerns
The community has concerns regarding personal safety for users of Heritage Park, which has become surrounded by tents and RVs that line Deschutes Parkway. There have been reports of aggression — lone women and families feeling especially threatened. There are accounts of open dealing, drug use and intoxication as well as vehicle break-ins.
Lower on the list, but a valid concern, is aesthetics. People have pride in Olympia and don’t like seeing one of the most beautiful areas of the city spoiled with graffiti, port-a-potties and large collections of personal property. The bridge is a key part of the waterfront and should be appealing, especially for tourism.
There have been several OFD calls to the camp, including prohibited campfires, accidental fires such as a mattress fire blamed on careless smoking as well as a recent tent fire with claims of arson. A Just Housing FAQ alleges “a stranger to the residents ran through the camp with a “fire-bomb,” started the tent on fire and ran away.”
Due to the density of campers, evidence of hoarding and the flammability of materials on site, it would be easy for a large fire to occur, resulting in injury to campers and further degradation of the environment. Another potential problem is fires have to be extinguished from on top of the bridge where it is hard to target fires directly underneath. The alternative is to go in on foot, trucks do not have street level access. Due to safety, all OFD calls have OPD backup.
First Christian Church has been providing individual heaters for the tents. Campers admitted to using prohibited large propane tanks over smaller ones due to cost and capacity. On my visit, I saw several tanks next to the port-a-potties.
In the worst case scenario of a major fire, especially one involving propane tank explosions, closing the bridge to check for structural integrity would affect the entire community, as well as being an avoidable expense. An extended closure, especially during the holidays, would be very hard on downtown businesses, which are already struggling with an increasingly fearful customer base as well as other burdens homeless are placing on them.
Council shames community
To the people who have suffered real fear and real anger, it is insulting to be told their feelings are misdirected and inappropriate, and that they “must” show compassion to those who have caused them harm. There seems to be a difficulty recognizing people who act in bad faith and holding them properly accountable. There is a tendency to excuse any and all anti-social behavior with trauma theory, giving moral exemption to the homeless.
On September 10th, Council Members Lisa Parshley and Clark Gilman shamed people for their emotions. Gilman counseled that we must “aim our fear somewhere else, not at someone who is struggling.” Parshley admonished, “we like to demonize them, a collective trauma suffering people — when we speak in anger it’s our trauma speaking, but we must act compassionately to those people at the center of this.”
Many who had signed up to comment regarding the camp chose to leave rather than endure further lectures. Jones, on a contentious reddit post defending the timing of his motion, which delayed public comment for over an hour, wrote he did not want people to “waste their breath.”
At the October 15th meeting, where several community activists spoke about drugs, the Council replied with irrelevant or bizarre comments. Parshley, using the rhetorical trick of “what-aboutism,” informed listeners that “most of the people who die [of overdose], and there are about 200 a day, are housed.” She had looked up that factoid during the meeting. She also noted she had been a member of the county’s opioid task force.
Nathaniel Jones brought up Seattle is Dying and the recent follow-up A Tale of 3 Cities, saying “KOMO doubled down on a very simplistic understanding [of the problem].” Council Member Rollins remarked “We don’t really see suicide so much in the street community because there is a strong will to survive despite odds” but referring to drug use she thought “coping and numbing is almost suicide prevention.”
Environmental hypocrisy and cultural competency
Jones, a vocal advocate for the environment, does not address the environmental impact of the encampments. It is also frustrating that Rollins, outspoken in her support for the recent Salish Sea action, voted against the Squaxin Tribe, siding instead with the scofflaws who are destabilizing the city.
Rollins, seeing the problem through a “very different lens,” called for an amendment to Jones’ motion to ensure a “humble” attitude and mandatory cultural competency training for service providers as a “preferred response” when working with campers. Steve Hall objected, saying such an addition lacked common definition, inviting confusion.
Rollins also advanced the idea that campers are economic and/or climate refugees. She spoke to the hard reality that these camps are going to be a new normal. She defended the Nickerson encampment on Wheeler Street as a model for cost effective “informal settlements.” We should be working to de-escalate the situation in the short-term while infrastructure is put in place, but to accept the camps as permanent seems akin to giving up.
Just Housing, in a position paper, points out that “Ironically, the unauthorized camps on both public and private land are providing a great service to our community by offering 24/7 access to relatively safe places to live to those unable to find appropriate accommodation at any of the ‘authorized’ shelters.”
Mayor Cheryl Selby dissents
Mayor Cheryl Selby was the lone vote against Jones’ motion, which she called “a travesty” on the Olympia Standard podcast and said it was “painful on so many levels to see a Council come apart like that.” She does not support the encampment and was the only one to mention concerns of the Tribe. She felt the motion “would send an important message about how the Council does or doesn’t do its job . . . if a majority of Council Members vote to reverse this we will do a disservice to not only ourselves, our staff, but more importantly, to the people of Olympia.”
It was personal for Selby, who had strong words for the homeless advocates, was well as speaking against antifa, calling their protest at her house “domestic terrorism” and alleging it was “an attempt to quiet me.”
She was rewarded with over $10K in campaign contributions the following week, reflecting public support for her stance. She was, however, the only candidate for Council not endorsed by the Thurston County Democrats. She does have a plethora endorsements by current and former elected officials as well organizations.
Selby read from a prepared statement on September 10th, “there are “certain organizations out there that are exploiting [the campers] to make their point and they are not really interested in the welfare of these people.” She believes “a loosely formed group of activists with an even looser connection to the truth has hijacked our thoughtful process leading to the clean-up under the 4th Avenue Bridge.”
To the encampment she said, “You demand respect and you demand dignity but that’s a two-way street. We need it back as a community. Council Member Parshley spoke about the collective trauma that we’re in — that’s a two way street too. You’re contributing a lot of behaviors that aren’t related to homelessness, they’re just bad behaviors.”
The Mayor continued, “The camp is still there because they refuse to move into managed situations because they have been emboldened to refuse services by the very people who pretend to have their best interests in mind. If this motion passes, we will be caving into the demands of a vocal minority that does not represent the best interests of this city. And we will be setting ourselves up for more of these tactics whenever this group or another gets its way . . . it’s not governance, it’s not even compassion.”
Politics Trumps Good Governance
Homelessness is by far the main issue in this year’s local elections. If not for politics, it is unclear why Jones took a last minute and public approach. It is not known why this was not done in private, especially since he had a clear majority. The City Manager, staff and the legal department could have given input, rather than legislation from the dais with the ensuing drama.
Selby noted the delay potentially cost money, it would be standard for clean- up contracts to have cancellation fees. There are complaints that attention to homelessness is preventing work on other important issues. Employees, including Code Enforcement, who have contact with the homeless have had aggression directed at them.
Even if Mayor Selby is re-elected, there will be no fundamental ideological change on the Council this year. Constituents will need to pressure the Council to balance the needs of the entire community in their decision making, instead outdoing each other with moral flattery.
“Comparable appropriate alternative location”
Jones’ motion for the city to provide a “comparable appropriate alternative location to be designated for this particular community” sets a precedent. Currently the motion is limited to the 4th Avenue location, but giving the camp a political victory could inspire other camps to resist removal in hopes of a similar deal.
It has also set up an unnecessary power struggle. The way in which this situation was handled demonstrates that a determined group can force the city into providing land and shelter on demand. The argument that the 4th Avenue Bridge camp is a community that requires preservation makes the city’s job more difficult.
Because sleep is a necessity to life, and sleep deprivation is considered cruel and unusual punishment, the 9th Circuit Court Martin v. City of Boise decision, which is under appeal, allows people to sleep on public land when there is no alternative shelter option. One unintended consequence is encampments are incentivized in areas that lack adequate shelter capacity. This will especially impact rural areas and small cities like Olympia who have limited access to financial resources for temporary solutions, much less large-scale supportive housing projects. As surrounding areas like Lacey and Yelm become stricter, Olympia is going to bear even more of the burden.
Thurston County must open its joint Mitigation Site as soon as possible, though the 4th Avenue Bridge campers would not find that an adequate solution, as it will have rules they object to. However, opening the site would allow the region to apply pressure to break up encampments and get people into treatment and/or housing. The reality is several sites are needed to meet current demand. At least one joint regional facility for car and RV camping is also needed and should be funded and implemented as soon as possible.
More tiny house villages would be useful, as would transitional housing, but both are complicated and not the most cost effective immediate solution. The 4th Avenue Bridge campers do not see Plum Street Village, with it’s even stricter rules around employment and substance abuse, as an option.
Quixote Village cost just over $3 million dollars or about $100,000 per tiny house. The region cannot afford this and must find less expensive solutions for lower income housing, especially for those with no income.
First Christian Church and Just Housing
Both First Christian Church and Just Housing advocate for the 4th Avenue Bridge encampment and are coordinating practical support. While providing services to ease suffering is worthy, supporting encampments politically is not as clear-cut. The more viable camping becomes, the more people will do it. The more people adapt to camp living, the less integrated they become, primed for chronic homelessness.
The sphere of protection placed around camps and the “angel-winging” of campers works to keep campers stuck in dysfunction by denying reality. Normalizing this subculture is not compassion. This approach is not working and is leading to great levels of misery.
The community has the right to critique current practice without being immediately and reflexively labeled “hateful.” Most people want to see campers rise above their situation, and have faith they can, while at the same time realizing some need more than just housing, they need basic life and social skills as well as imagination to envision a better life.
When homeless advocates argue all critics “hate the homeless” not only are they inaccurate, but this simplistic analysis deflects conversation with a passive aggressive ad hominem attack on the person trying to assess the situation realistically. Logic and critical thinking do not preclude compassion.
In response to a citizen query Reverend Amy Lacroix of First Christian Church wrote, “I understand the fear and concern about the camp. But I also hope that people can have a bit of compassion. These are not bad people. They are people who for many different reasons have found themselves in this horrible way. It’s easy to judge them and to write them off, but they have asked for help. They want very very much to get clean, get themselves together and be a healthy, active, positive member of society . . . All of the negative comments on the Facebook page and negative attitudes in general don’t help. No one can hate the campers more than they already hate themselves. They feel like losers, like outcasts. If we continue to treat them in this way we are not helping anything. We simply make the situation worse.”
This was written to a citizen with personal experience with addiction, someone who cares so much she is getting politically involved, giving up free time to advocate for solutions and doing outreach to meet campers. She does not “hate” the homeless nor does she consider them “losers,” yet she is scolded. Homeless advocates are quick to confuse dissent and discontent with malign intent. It is condescending, disrespectful and nonproductive.
Lack of progress reports
On September 24th, two weeks after Jones’ motion, Keith Staley, Director of Community Planning and Development announced “no site has been located and that we are continuing to work with that community and the concerned clergy to find a suitable path forward. We don’t anticipate that happening immediately.
“We are going to continue to work with the concerned clergy to understand what their abilities are to support that community and the individuals in that community and we are also continuing to plan for that relocation understanding that at some point in the future that will happen sooner rather than later. But, that is going to take planning. This is going to take identifying a site and resources to support a facility somewhere around 25 to 30 individuals. We are developing those plans and we anticipate coming back to City Council sometime in the near future to share those plans with you.”
Staley offered to take questions from Council. There were none. No questions about budget or funding. No updates were given by the city at the next two meetings, on October 8th and 15th. Neither Reverend Amy LaCroix from First Christian Church nor Tyler Gundel from Just Housing came to the Council with updates. Nor have any campers.
Visiting the 4th Avenue Bridge encampment
I was given a tour of the 4th Avenue Bridge encampment on October 14th, accompanied by Tyler Gundel of Just Housing. She feels that if a good outcome is achieved, delay removing the camp will be justified.
I had a different experience at the camp than Nathanial Jones, who presented his observations in this campaign statement, visually interpreted by Olympia Photography and News. It was also sunny the day I visited, absolutely lovely to be on the waterfront and much quieter than anticipated. My guides were two likable campers named Opie and Elvis, who seemed like natural leaders. I enjoyed talking with them on a human level, but as a reporter, it is more complicated — I felt an emotional sleight of hand I have difficulty pinning down.
Opie and Elvis were skilled PR representatives, spinning issues in ways favorable to the camp. It felt like they had given this tour before and had talking points designed to elicit sympathy. They did show pride in the camp and their work to better it. Both said they were sober and Elvis said he had helped four people into rehab.
The remainder of campers kept to themselves, all the information came from Opie and Elvis. They seemed comfortable with camping, there was no discussion of transitioning to anything but another camp, ideally one where they can set the rules. They did not seem to be personally working on the problem.
I was lied to — despite being told drug use was only allowed inside of tents, but as we sat near the shore I saw an uncapped needle on the ground. A camper tried to cover it with a rock. I was assured there were no stolen goods in the camp, and that they had gotten the bike parts out, but I saw two men walk up carrying bike parts. Only when pressed did Elvis admit that people in the camp were responsible for graffiti on the bridge and port-a-potties. He first tried to blame passing teenagers.
Other claims seemed to have an elements of truth, or were possibly misrepresentations based on misperceptions of events. It was fairly seamless, hard to tell where each item fell on the spectrum, making accurate reporting difficult.
I was told there are two separate camps under the bridge, one toward the front, and a second further back. The reason behind the division was not clear. The front did seem neater, with fewer bicycle parts. There were rig caps and empty individual use saline bags scattered underfoot. There was a full sharps container the size of a kitchen garbage can near the port-a-potties.
The church is supposed to be working with the camp on “self-governance,” which is basically an attempt to get people to act in socially responsible ways. No theft, no “borrowing,” no fighting, respecting personal space, no dealing in the camp. Elvis said there was work on this preceding the church’s involvement.
The campers pointed out where several trees had been cut, ostensibly to provide better lines of sight into the camp. They felt it was hypocritical for the city to complain about environmental impact, when they are also being destructive. There was anger over the boulders placed to protect the shoreline and wetlands area. Other smaller rocks were placed, along with a fence, to block access to the furthest reaches of the bridge. Boulders were placed explicitly to limit the size of the camp, and Elvis said it did function better with fewer people. One woman was evicted in September after she got physically aggressive with a photographer. Many campers have migrated nearby to Deschutes Parkway.
Elvis was not aware of issues with the Squaxin but said they have scared off poachers, throwing rocks at boats and cutting illegal fishing lines. The campers had grievances, they especially did not like verbal harassment and horns honked at them at night. They do not like having the camp photographed and shot down a drone with a pellet gun. Opie says people do not want to touch them. Elvis and Opie did a social experiment and found that people treated them differently when they were wearing backpacks.
Improving the situation
People are finding it difficult to keep open hearts for several reasons, most revolving around perceptions of fairness and personal responsibility. There is a social expectation that people find a way to contribute to the community to make it better, but at least to do no harm. This is what the homeless ask of the community, and it is reasonable to for the community to ask the same of the homeless.
There is a difference between civil disobedience and intransigence. The campers should voluntarily leave as soon as possible. As a gesture of good faith, they should remove the graffiti from the port-a-potties and used approved paint to clean up the bridge footings. Elvis indicated that the camp is willing to do this and had been stymied in their efforts. The city should work with the campers to allow them to make reparations. The camp should help with clean-up on moving day and cooperate with city employees.
The campers should work to better their situation, taking small steps on a daily basis. Campers need to tap into their two key strengths — resourcefulness and resilience — to make healing a priority. It must be stressed that recovery is possible. They need community role models and mentors to support their efforts.
According to a Just Housing poll of twenty campers, only one could think of alternatives to living under the bridge. The others would not relocate to Union Gospel or the Mitigation Site even if there was space available. They cited bad experience/mistreatment, having been kicked out, don’t agree with rules, no personal space and being unable to stay with loved ones. Elvis alleged that 60% of the people at the Mitigation Site are dealing, and he faced retribution for complaining.
I asked Opie what respect would look like to him. He said it would be a place where he could set the rules. That is just not possible. Integration into society will be hard if this is your mindset. To live by the code of street self-governance is regressive and not desirable. Moral norms are practical solutions for common problems.
Contrary to Council Member Parshley, no one “likes” to demonize the homeless, and almost all community members reject dehumanization of the homeless. People can have sympathy for someone’s struggle while not tolerating anti-social behavior that has become common and visible.
No one on the outside has an understanding of who is at these encampments, what activities are taking place and what social services are needed. The Thurston County Sheriff reports there are 74 transient sex offenders in the county, 27 Level II or III, which respectively have a moderate or high risk of reoffending. According to the Sheriff, “approximately 90% typically reside within city jurisdictions.”
There seems to be no official push back against theft, dealing and prostitution in the camps. It does not seem unreasonable that frequent and friendly police contact be established at the major camps and at least periodic check-ins at the smaller camps to establish presence as a check on criminal behavior. We also need law enforcement and the justice system to find effective ways to deal minor offenses like shoplifting to counter the boldness with which people have been stealing.
We need regional government, service providers, the community and the campers to face this crisis with honest self-reflection, intellectual integrity and a presumption of good faith. Inconvenient truths cannot be ignored, and no one who wants to see humane solutions should be shamed.
The situation is going to require at least temporary coexistence between residents and campers, the responsibility falling on campers to be better citizens. Most objections have to do with unacceptable behavior. If that behavior can be dialed down, public opinion on the viability of camps might change. Until then, people having their safety threatened are reacting appropriately to that threat by speaking out and demanding change to policy and enforcement.
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For more further analysis of homelessness in Olympia, please see The Real Crisis in Olympia is Not Homelessness which discusses how tolerance for harm is having an adverse effect on the city.
Candace Mercer is an artist/writer/activist who has lived in Olympia since 1996. She has worked with The Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice and the Crisis Clinic of Thurston and Mason Counties. She has written for Electronic Intifada, The Alternative Press and Works in Progress. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
All images used with permission of Olympia Photography and News whose mission is “to photograph Olympia. Sometimes that means photographing something that is perceived to be beautiful, sometimes something that is perceived to be ugly will be photographed. However, at all times we will photograph and document the truth that we see, whether it is ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful.’”