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Olympia council declares homelessness a public health emergency, delays camp eviction

Olympia City Hall (Tony Overman / Olympian)
Olympia City Hall (Tony Overman / Olympian)

The Olympia City Council on Tuesday declared a public health emergency related to homelessness and postponed the eviction of people in one homeless camp on city-owned property for at least a week.

The emergency declaration, which passed unanimously, went into effect immediately and comes a month after a similar declaration by Thurston County.

The city’s declaration does not carry with it extra money or resources to address homelessness.

“What it does is it provides flexibility so that the city can streamline certain government procedures in order to act more quickly in response to homelessness,” said Amy Buckler, the city’s downtown programs manager.

That includes entering into contracts and siting facilities. The city is looking at contracting with local service providers to open a daytime warming center and city-approved homeless camps, both of which would involve contracts and siting.

The emergency declaration will be in effect for three years and could be extended after that.

The vote came just days before the city was to clear a homeless camp on city-owned property on Wheeler Avenue Southeast.

In May, the council approved the purchase of 2 acres at 1319 Wheeler Ave. SE. The city wants to turn the undeveloped land into a park and told about a dozen people camping there they had to leave by Thursday, according to a city spokeswoman.

Council members said it was a contradiction to declare a homeless emergency while moving forward with an eviction. At one point council member Jim Cooper made a motion to stop camp sweeps and evictions on undeveloped public property unless there was an “immediate danger to human life or public safety or a regulatory condition that comes from another agency.”

“We have spent enough money on sweeps and cleaning encampments that we probably could have housed 100 people,” said Cooper, noting the Wheeler Avenue camp has been there for some time but was only going to be cleared once the city bought the property.

Other council members said Cooper’s proposal was too broad. City Manager Steve Hall warned it could open the door to unlimited camping on all undeveloped public property at the same time that the city is working to set up managed campsites.

“Just to drop all of our rules and precautions because we’re so overwhelmed, I don’t think that’s the right path,” Hall said.

In the end, the council asked city staff to hold off on evicting people currently camping near Wheeler Avenue until next week, when the council plans to hold a study session on homeless camp evictions.


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