An Open Letter to the Olympia Community: RE March to End Sweeps

Just Housing, along members of other local advocacy groups and faith communities are working together to organize a peaceful march to Olympia City Hall on May 21st. The purpose of this march is to call for the City of Olympia to end sweeps of homeless encampments on public property and to adopt more just, compassionate, and effective policies related to responding to encampments.

We define “sweeps” as the forceful removal of homeless encampments from public property. We believe that if the alternatives offered to those living in encampments are safe, legal, and appropriate, then people will want to access those alternatives voluntarily. It is possible to never “sweep” again, if our community ensures that everyone has a safe, legal, and appropriate option for a place to live and adequate support and time needed for accessing those options. 

Vulnerable community members suffer profound trauma and harm every time encampments are forcibly removed, especially when residents are not provided a safe, legal, and appropriate alternative place to go.  Forcible removal exacerbates the instability already experienced by those living unsheltered, particularly those who are struggling with mental health, medical health, and substance use challenges. It makes it more difficult for folks to access and sustain services and to maintain or search for employment. And national studies like the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s “Housing not Handcuffs” have demonstrated that this approach to homelessness is not only the least effective, but the most costly.  

The City of Olympia, which has historically removed encampments from public land with as little as 72 hours’ notice and no alternative place for residents to go, suspended sweeps in September of 2018 as a result of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in the case of Martin vs. Boise. Regrettably, the City declared in a memo released on February 22 of this year that it would be resuming sweeps of camps from public land, citing a more recent court decision out of Oakland. The City made no commitment to wait for the creation of more legal, safe, and appropriate shelter options, or to change existing policies and practices related to sweeps.

We have seen examples of constructive and inspiring engagement between camp residents, neighbors, the City, and various advocacy and social service groups when the City has chosen to support existing camps by directly addressing health and safety concerns, rather than forcing people to relocate to another unsanctioned location. For instance, the City has begun providing garbage and bathroom assistance to some encampments. We want to be a part of supporting responses like these. However, ending sweeps is an essential part of developing the trust we will need among the diverse elements of our community if we are to successfully work together to address this complex issue. 

The City has stopped the practice of sweeps before with the promise of developing more just, humane, and effective policies. However, sweeps resumed before real discussions about alternatives could take place. We believe that we can return to a path of responding to this crisis in a way that remains true to our city’s values and commitments. We are asking the City to try again, and for the larger community to support this ask by joining us in this march or contacting elected officials individually at citycouncil@ci.olympia.wa.us .

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