The City of Olympia and Thurston County have put the brakes on a plan to create a single safe-parking site for people who live in their vehicles.
Directed at finding a place to move people whose households are vehicles along Ensign Road, the plan was set in motion when the city held off on forcing them to move after the State Attorney General’s Office raised concerns about the sweep’s potential non-compliance with the state’s eviction moratorium and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Keith Stahley, an Assistant City Manager, said today, “we realized that the site (the city’s firing range at Carpenter Road and Martin Way) was going to require more work than we anticipated and would accommodate fewer vehicles than we hoped,” after acknowledging last week that providing a safe-parking site had “proven to be a more complicated project than we initially thought it would be.”
Tye Gundel, who works with Just Housing, an advocacy organization that works alongside homeless individuals and others, was not available for comment Thursday. Last week, she said the project had become mired in jurisdictional issues, including law enforcement and site management. Just Housing was key in staving off the sweep and frequently meets with Ensign residents managing the vehicle encampment.
In the short-term, Stahley said more sites in the county are being evaluated as is a “scattered site” safe-parking program. Safe parking sites typically include sanitation, hygiene, and garbage services. The city currently provides those services at the Ensign Road site, which is just south of St. Peter Hospital, where about 40 people live in 30 or so vehicles.
Last year, county commissioners approved spending $530,000 on the safe-parking efforts; it was not clear Thursday afternoon what will happen to that money.
While people have lived in their vehicles all over Thurston County for decades, their numbers are multiplying. The 2019 point-in-time census of homeless individuals in Thurston County found that on the night of January 23, 2020, nearly 260 people, or 27% of those surveyed, reported sleeping in vehicles, RVs/boats, or abandoned buildings, a 14% increase over 2019.
Since then, vehicle encampments have sprung up, most notably in Olympia and Lacey. Lacey shut down one behind its city hall and all but banned vehicle encampments in the city. The state Department of Enterprise Services shut down another along Deschutes Parkway, which it manages in its role as the state’s landlord. Many of the Deschutes residents re-located to Ensign Road.
DES has banned overnight vehicle parking along Deschutes, couching it in a broad-based effort at redoing parking regulations for all areas it manages in the Olympia area, including Deschutes and the state Capitol Campus, where parking has been off-limits since summer. Its proposed new rule not only bans overnight parking but gives DES the power to impound vehicles for violating parking restrictions.
The proposed changes do not address a court ruling in Seattle that makes it illegal for vehicles belonging to people who live in them to be impounded under the threat of auction.
Another avenue also recently was closed. The Port of Olympia had said it would look at how it might participate in regional efforts to shelter homeless people after it swept a homeless encampment from port property that it is leasing to a multi-million-dollar developer.
At one point, the port said it would look at its properties for a possible homeless encampment site, but citing concerns over federal regulations, abruptly dropped any further consideration.
Instead, two of the three port commissioners voted late last year to approve spending $900,000 to build a luxury RV resort on its East Bay property.