Setting it Straight: Fact-checking the narrative about the 4th Avenue Bridge camp

  1. Is the 4th Ave Bridge Community really a threat to the quality of surrounding waters?

The City has been providing port-a-potty and dumpster support to the tent community for months, so residents have been able to dispose of trash and human waste in ways that do not contaminate surrounding waters. Even before the City provided port-a-potties, the residents of the camp built their own toilets to avoid contaminating waters.

The reality is that waters surrounding the 4th Ave Bridge Community have been contaminated for decades by several sources more significant than any tent community, including; boats, stormwater & sewage drains, sewage, bark from shipping logs, industry, etc.

Most recently the waters have been significantly contaminated by:

  1. The Tumwater distillery oil spill
  2. The sewage line break near SPSCC caused by a construction company, which raised bacteria levels in Percival Creek (which flows into the inlet) 100 times above what is considered safe.

So can we blame the 4th Ave Bridge Community for the quality of surrounding waters? No.

  • Is the 4th Ave Bridge Community a threat to the structural integrity of the 4th Ave Bridge?

There has been no digging around the structure of the bridge for months. The only digging that ever occurred was in what is referred to as “The Hallway” in the far back corner of the bridge. But even this digging never jeopardized the structural integrity of the bridge. Regardless, the City put up a fence in June, blocking the area off. No one has camped there since.

  • Was there a tent fire next to propane tanks?

Yes. What the City does NOT mention is that the fire was started by a person who does not live at the camp. A stranger to the residents ran through the camp with a “fire-bomb”, started the tent on fire and ran away.

There is a risk of fire at any tent community, just like there is a risk of fire at every home in every neighborhood. This will be true as long as people need heat for food and warmth.

Would we ever evict a housed neighborhood because one of the homes was set on fire by a person who didn’t live there?

The City has also NOT mentioned how:

  • Residents put out the fire in the incident described above before the fire department arrived.
  • Residents moved the propane tanks a safe distance from the camp after the fire.
  • Residents have been working with The City to reduce, if not totally stop, open flame fires and to keep propane tanks in safer areas.
  • Is there a gas line under the bridge?

The City has justified the removal of the tent community by claiming that there is a gas line beneath the bridge that could explode or cause a disaster if a fire got out of hand beneath the bridge.

Yet according to Puget Sound Energy, there is no gas line under the 4th Ave Bridge. The gas line is under the 5th Avenue Bridge. The gas line along 4th Avenue ends at 529 4th Ave W, Olympia (the Isthmus Park) and does not continue under the 4th Avenue Bridge.

  • Did the City provide residents with a resource guide when they gave out eviction notices?

Yes, the City gave out the May 2018 guide pictured below- a guide that is inaccurate and outdated.

  • The only two shelter options that might have openings when the community is evicted, the City’s Mitigation Site and the Union Gospel Mission, aren’t even on the list. Nevertheless, the Mitigation Site has nowhere near enough openings to accommodate the 4th Avenue camp, and any new openings there will most likely be the result of current residents at that site being evicted and displaced back onto the street.  The Union Gospel Mission has also been turning away numerous people on recent nights due to lack of capacity.
  • The Salvation Army is closed until November at the earliest.
  • Rosie’s Place, Safe Place, Haven House, and the Family Support Center are not options for the demographic of people living beneath the bridge.
  • Drexel House has a waitlist. It is not a first come, first serve shelter.
  • The Interfaith Works Shelter is the only shelter on the list that the people living beneath the bridge could try to access when they are swept. They only have five lottery beds available each night and already turn away an average of eight people every night.
  • Has the City provided residents with another place to go that is an appropriate alternative to the 24/7 camp where they presently live?

No. The City has not designated a single alternative camping location for the residents to relocate to, other than a limited number of spots at the Mitigation Site, which as noted above has insufficient capacity to accommodate more than a few of the 4th Avenue Bridge residents. The City has also offered “overflow shelter beds,” neglecting to inform the public that the Salvation Army shelter is closed until November and that the Union Gospel Mission has recently been turning people away due to lack of space.

The bottom line is that our community still has a shortage of hundreds of shelter beds, with every shelter in our community having to turn people away regularly due to lack of space, including the Mitigation Site and the Union Gospel Mission. 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.

  • Is three weeks really “enough” time for the residents to move?

It might have been if residents were given an appropriate alternative location to move to. Unfortunately, the fact that there is nowhere for people to move to isn’t changed by the City giving folks more time than the usual three days to one week to move.

They have instead given the camp residents and community service providers, who have no land and no money, three weeks to accomplish what the City has failed to do over the last year, even with its significant resources and emergency powers created by its declaration of a public health emergency related to homelessness.

  • Will this sweep make progress towards solving the health and safety concerns listed by The City as justification for the community’s removal?

The people living beneath the bridge will more likely than not still be living outdoors in unsanctioned tent communities. The only differences will be that:

  • They will be in different locations
  • They will most likely no longer have access to bathrooms or dumpsters where they live
  • They will most likely be living in less visible areas where the risks of exploitation, sickness, violence, and death are higher.

Sweeping tent communities without giving people another appropriate place to go does not make progress towards addressing very real health & safety concerns — it worsens them.

  • Has the City made efforts to problem-solve around challenges at the tent community?

The City has provided port-a-potties and dumpsters for the residents and staff have made other significant efforts to problem-solve around the community’s challenges. However, there was, and still is, much opportunity for collaboration with residents and service providers that has not been tried, and a lot of positive efforts made by camp residents that were never publicly acknowledged.

What the City’s story does NOT mention is:

  • The effort residents of the community have put into problem-solving & meeting the City’s expectations. For example, residents purchased paint to cover up graffiti and bought new tents months ago to improve the community’s appearance. They also created a security plan with a security team and a list of camp rules and responsibilities that everyone signed.
  • Up until the incident where the tent was burnt down by a stranger, residents had been told by City staff that they were doing a good job of meeting the City’s expectations.
  • The City never reached out to local service providers for help with problem-solving the challenges associated with the camp, including community groups that have been successfully providing support to unsanctioned encampments for years.
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