County Commission Commits Cash to Campers

The City of Olympia has identified its firing range parking lot at Carpenter Road and Martin Way as a possible short-term, safe parking location for people currently living in their vehicles.

The effort got a boost Tuesday when Thurston County Commissioners, in a 2-1 vote, approved $530,000 in one-time funding to help set up the safe parking site. The money comes from state fees people pay when recording documents with the county; a state emergency housing grant; and federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act money.

The city requested the funding from the county late last week. Primarily, it is looking for a place to move the residents of vehicles now parked along Ensign Road south of St. Peter Hospital. It had to put its plans for a Tuesday sweep of the area on hold after receiving a letter from the State Attorney General’s Office advising that such a sweep likely would violate the state’s eviction moratorium.

 “In the past, the County has been justly criticized for failing to be a regional leader on the issue of homelessness,” County Commissioner Tye Menser wrote in a Facebook post late Tuesday evening. “I am happy to say those days are behind us.”

In addition to its financial commitment to the city, commissioners also approved  $600,000 toward the new Interfaith Works emergency shelter, day center, and site for future transitional housing. 

Commissioner Gary Edwards was the lone no vote; Commissioners John Hutchings and Menser gave it a thumbs up, even while expressing some reservations about operational details. They also asked staff to obtain more information about what the city of Lacey might be willing to do.

No decisions have been made about programming and who will operate the site. The county is reaching out to current social service providers to discern their possible interest.

The city has not responded to requests from the Tribune for information on how it will work with the county moving forward. 

Edwards’ primary concern was about the proposed location for the safe parking area, which is on property owned by the city of Olympia. The range is in the City of Lacey and adjacent to property owned by the county. 

“I really think they ought to move them up to the Capitol Campus myself,” Edwards said during Tuesday’s Commission meeting. “The city has mismanaged this thing for the last five years … we’re not going to get anything done with this whole problem if we continue to hide them out in different areas out of sight out of mind.”

“We need to play our part even though this has been mismanaged … I am not against spending the money. I am against putting a homeless camp out there on Carpenter Road,” Edwards said.

Meanwhile, it was quiet at the Ensign Road location Wednesday morning. Early Tuesday morning the city barricaded part of the roadway while it hung no-parking signs and worked to persuade people to move.

Residents and advocates were still confused about who would be ticketed and when, but had received no information from the city by late afternoon.

Advocacy group Just Housing also was waiting to hear from the city about an email they sent to council members and staff slamming the city’s actions on Tuesday and asking to work on a constructive solution.

“Any City coordinated tactics or actions that could be reasonably construed as pressuring or harassing people into leaving Ensign Road should cease immediately. Energy and resources should instead be redirected towards working with the County and their commitment of $530,000 to go towards a safe and legal Safe Parking option,” the email said. The full text of the letter is available here.

The city had not responded to the email by late Wednesday afternoon, nor had it been ticketing.

Councilmember Clark Gilman, however, weighed in. “I do believe in problem-solving and that there are better solutions than offering gas cards and telling people they can’t come back,” he said Wednesday afternoon, adding that the council wasn’t consulted regarding the actions that took place Tuesday morning. 

“I believe the city council, city government, and the community all have an obligation to care for the least among us,” he said. “Many of the people on Ensign Road have been unhoused and struggling for a long time and there are people who just had that crisis. (The situation on Ensign Road) should be an indicator of where we are at in terms of housing and social services.” 

Many of the residents have said they would be happy to move if there was a safe, legal place to do so. About 17 had left by Wednesday afternoon and others were trying to get their vehicles running so they could move them after actions by the city Tuesday morning. The residents say the only sure thing for them right now is uncertainty. 

“All we are asking for is to give us a safe place to go,” said Rosie, an Ensign Road resident. “We need somewhere to go where we won’t get hassled.”

By Mindy Chambers

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