Posted February 14, 2013 by Cooper Point Journal in News

Olympia Officially Bans Camping On Public Property

A new ordinance, passed by the City Council of Olympia, went into effect on February 8 making it illegal to camp on public property. The new Chapter of Olympia Municipal Code Title 12 states that “it shall be unlawful at all times to camp or construct camp facilities at or on the grounds of all City Property and City Parks.”

The new law has immediate consequences for the local homeless population including Kyle, a 16-year-old homeless youth. “When my mom lost the house we lived in, she disappeared with a dude she had met a few months before,” said Kyle. “I was pretty much left to fend for myself.” Most recently, he had been weathering Olympia nights on the front steps of the city’s capitol building; a well-lit area with a large overhang that he said “helped protect people…from all the rain and wind.”

The incidents that prompted the ordinance were several complaints by city staff and civilians regarding trash and human waste around the capitol, feelings of being threatened, and one instance of a dog tearing the jacket of a city employee.

An update on a separate ordinance was also passed last December which mostly addressed the so-called “sit/lie” regulations, which are the laws that detail when and how people may use the sidewalks, streets, and alleys of downtown Olympia.

The new updates were designed with the idea of safety for the citizenry-at-large. They include stipulations that pedestrians and drivers are not to be interfered with during their normal routes through town, and that there can be no “aggressive panhandling” (which consists of solicitation of items of value, or taking intimidating action to induce another person to relinquish anything of value) and that panhandling will not be allowed within 25 feet of ATMs. They also lengthened the hours during which individuals will be allowed to use areas in compliance with these laws, originally from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. – they now extend to midnight. Additionally, the city repealed current restrictions on busking, or playing music outdoors.

According to Laura Wohl, a spokeswoman for the OPD: “Because these are new ordinances, all offenders will be given verbal warnings before any legal action is taken against them. This is to ensure that everyone understands the new laws.” She went on to state that “If there are repeat offenders, but it is believed that they do not fully understand the laws, there will be a further attempt at education. If it is believed that an individual has been warned and understands the new laws, but continues to utilize these spaces, then arrests will take place.” No one at the Thurston County Prosecutors office knew at this time what the maximum penalty for such offenses would be.

One homeless woman, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, said that she planned to “occupy the capitol” in protest. She and her son had been sleeping in a downtown doorway a few nights back when they were informed by a local police officer that they needed to vacate. When her son asked where, she maintained that he responded with,    “There isn’t anywhere you can go.”

She said that the city’s attitude, from what she could see, is that “during the day we have to be at work, and in the evenings we have to be in a house.” She went on to say that “very little of the homeless community knew of the ordinance, that of the protestors at City Hall [the day they took effect] almost none were actually homeless.”

One group that has been vocally against these ordinances is PANZA, an inter-faith organization that has shown its support of the homeless community through its project Camp Quixote. Not a permanent camp, it houses those who are homeless in a moving tent city which relocates once every three months. The current location is at First Christian Church at 701 Franklin St. where the camp is able to use a covered parking garage for added safety and comfort.

Grace Dzyacki, the current Camp Quixote Intern, said there are things that set them apart from other shelters. “They hold elections every four months to elect a President, VP, Treasurer and Secretary, which gives the residents a sense of control not found in most shelters. They strive to be an egalitarian, fully democratic group that makes no executive decisions, meaning that people who have long been voiceless can once again speak up,” she said. “They are open during the day where many shelters are not, and they are an all-age group.”

“Unfortunately,” she continued, “like so many shelters, Camp Quixote is full to capacity and openings are rare. They are working to build a permanent camp in the next two years with upwards of 30 small buildings supplied with heat and light. If all goes as planned, they would also try to maintain the current mobile version of the camp.While these are important steps forward, they will not in and of themselves solve the problem of homelessness, here or anywhere.”

Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum has pledged 30,000 dollars in aid of the problem, but according to Dzyacki, “this is nowhere near enough to do what is needed;” namely, to “open additional shelters that have the staff and ability to get more homeless, and in particular homeless youth, off the streets and into beds.” In her opinion the City Council’s continued pledges to enact change do not meet the reality of their actions. “I do not believe that they are on the same side as Olympia’s homeless and their advocates,” she said. “One thing that is certain, though, is that the options for Olympia’s homeless are fewer than they were last week.”

When asked about what he would do now, Kyle was unsure. He was tentative about sleeping downtown for fear of legal repercussions: “I don’t want to be another kid in jail for no reason.” The only option left that he knew of was to camp out in the woods around town. While not technically legal, it is known that these areas are not patrolled.

However, he mentioned a fear of staying in these areas precisely because they are dark and secluded. In 2008 two homeless men’s bodies were found strangled, beaten, and burned. At the end of 2012 a homeless man was stabbed to death by another young man who had just been released from prison, supposedly in a dispute over territory.

More information on these ordinances can be found here.

By Patrick Stewart