Advocacy needed! Ask Thurston County BoCC to designate shelter for residents of Deschutes Pkwy camp by July 23rd

Dear friends and supporters,

Please email the Thurston County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) and ask that they take immediate action to designate sanctioned, safe, and sanitary shelter for the approximately 70 residents of the Deschutes Parkway tent encampment by July 23rd, 2020.

After over ten months of the encampment remaining on the privately-owned greenbelt next to the 5th avenue bridge, the property owners will notify the residents that they cannot stay past July 23rd. While Just Housing Olympia opposes a policy of displacement and “whack-a-mole” sweeps as both immoral and ineffective, that little strip of greenbelt could never accommodate the unmet need for safe shelter and housing in our community. The decision to sweep this camp only lies in the hands of these property owners because we, as a region, have failed to take responsibility for our collective issues.

The burden of these issues falls again and again on private property owners, faith communities, camp residents, social workers and community advocates because we still live in a climate of denial and deflection regarding the crisis of homelessness. As a region, we still regard evidence-based solutions to homelessness as politically risky instead of politically necessary. As a region, we still deny that this is our problem to solve and we still deflect responsibility endlessly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Like the anti-maskers, our ability to rationalize has overpowered our ability to reason – we deny that we must act together to save lives, and we ignore evidence that challenges our decision to evade responsibility for the wellbeing of others. This pandemic has caused many of us to reflect more and more on the collective nature of our wellbeing. 

The need to respond with urgency and action extends beyond this specific situation. With an uncertain economic future ahead of us and the state’s eviction moratorium ending in August, we have every reason to expect the number of people experiencing homelessness in our community to rise. We are going into this upcoming winter with more homeless people and less shelter beds than we had last year, and no place for homeless individuals to find shelter off of the streets during the day. We know that people of color in our community are most at risk, both in terms of eviction and access to housing and shelter. We live in a community that has turned out in numbers to reject police brutality and racism, but has been shamefully indifferent as people of color are quietly displaced or fall into poverty and homelessness due to gentrification, out of control rents, and regressive policies that criminalize the poor.

Below is the joint letter submitted to the Thurston County BoCC about 1 week ago from Just Housing Olympia, home and property owners along Deschutes Parkway, and local faith community leaders. While there was some discussion about the situation at this week’s BoCC meeting, we have received no response and there are currently no plans being made to provide alternative shelter for those who will be displaced. 

Please email in support of our asks, share this message on social media, and let us know if you have any questions! You can also give public comment at the next BoCC meeting on Tuesday, 7/14 at 2PM either in-person or over the phone (Phone #: Dial: 360-252-9020 Pin: 1234). If you would like to include other local elected officials in your email, click here for a list of local electeds and their contact information.

Thank you for your support and your advocacy.

Contact Information for Thurston County BoCC:

Thurston County Commissioners

Thurston County Manager

Dear Thurston County Board of County Commissioners and Mr. Ramiro Chavez:

We write to demand immediate action by Thurston County to create safe, adequate shelter for the residents of the Deschutes Parkway encampment, located on privately owned property. After over ten months of tolerating the growing health and safety concerns associated with the encampment, the property owners have decided that they can no longer allow for the encampment to remain on their property and will notify residents that they cannot stay past July 23rd, 2020.

The undersigned are a diverse group that includes owners and neighbors of the Deschutes Parkway property, leaders of faith communities in Thurston County, and Just Housing Olympia, which represents housed and unhoused residents of Thurston County. We have all been impacted by Thurston County’s failure to show adequate leadership in response to our housing and homelessness crisis. We do not view the simple continuation of “whack-a-mole” style sweeps as leadership, and we also share the goal of seeing those living at the encampment treated with respect and dignity, through the creation of a shelter space–sanctioned and supported by Thurston County–for the Deschutes residents to transition to.

The owners and neighbors have collectively decided that the encampment residents must leave by July 23rd. The number of campers grows weekly, as does the risk that a campfire will spread up the hill to the residential neighborhood, or that human waste will contaminate the adjoining waters. ORCAA has also issued notices against property owners for violations of air quality standards. After the residents move, owners will face thousands of dollars of clean-up and remediation costs. Both morally and practically, these private property owners cannot be asked to continue to allow the residents to remain. And yet, the difficult moral question of whether to move people who have no safe alternative has been involuntarily delegated to individual property owners, through the inaction and lack of solutions from the county and most jurisdictions within.

In our view, it is unacceptable that the City of Olympia continues to be the only jurisdiction stepping up to provide shelter for our community’s unhoused, despite the existence of encampments on properties belonging to all jurisdictions, including Thurston County. We see this as an opportunity for Thurston County to take responsibility and to step up to ensure a safe, humane, and effective resolution to this immediate crisis. 

We demand leadership and action by Thurston County because there is no part of this county that is not affected by homelessness and economic instability, and given our current pandemic, we should expect things to get worse – not better.  COVID-19 has also forced us to consider the public health implications of our homelessness and housing crisis in a new light. COVID-19 infection rates continue to increase and a second wave is predicted to coincide with the flu this fall. The Center for Disease Control notes that residents of unsanctioned encampments are often at high risk to COVID-19, due to underlying health conditions and lack of access to basic sanitation. Failure to provide sanctioned, sanitary shelter to these 70 or more residents will increase the likelihood of community transmission of COVID-19 and put these already vulnerable community members at higher risk. The wisdom that “we must live together as brothers or perish together as fools” takes on an entirely new meaning during these times.

Just Housing Olympia and local faith communities have repeatedly stepped in to support our unhoused neighbors when local governmental leadership fails, but they simply do not have the capacity to provide adequate shelter to the 70 or more residents of the Deschutes community. Thurston County must provide leadership in quickly securing a sanctioned site for these residents to move. If Thurston County does not do so, then these residents will be forced to disperse into the county, without shelter or any designated area to shelter in place during a time of unprecedented crisis. Most will undoubtedly relocate to other unsanctioned private and publicly owned properties, which is a resolution that will only bring more harm to our already struggling communities.  

We also understand that Thurston County has access to Department of Commerce funding for homelessness response, and that Thurston County has already identified a parcel of land at Martin and Carpenter that could serve as a mitigation site. Further, the undersigned share an understanding that the majority of people currently living at the Deschutes encampment, as well as a number of other local privately owned properties at risk of being cleared, are there because local jurisdictions, including Thurston County, have continued to engage in the “whack-a-mole” practice of forcing people to leave public properties without providing alternative locations, effectively pushing the crisis onto the backs of others in the community. 

The undersigned, while committed to pushing our leaders for a humane resolution to this immediate crisis, are also committed to being a part of the solution, but we cannot continue to do this alone. We need land, resources, and for Thurston County to come to the table with a commitment to act—not only to resolve this specific crisis, but to help fix our broken housing and homelessness response system that is failing all of us. The number of unhoused people in Thurston County is continuing to grow, while the number of shelter spaces, including cold weather shelter spaces, are decreasing. Without immediate action, this crisis will only continue to worsen and our community simply cannot wait any longer for our leaders to step up and intervene.

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