Decide to clean the homeless camps


So many of us are talking about the condition of the homeless camps, especially the trash.  Let’s decide to clean and manage them better.  We’re a clever bunch of folks here in Thurston County. We’ve been working successfully on a number of fronts to address homelessness, so let’s take this on, figure it out, get it done.

We can feel proud of our effort to address this national issue at our local level.  We are increasing temporary housing, adding shelter beds, providing needed health services in the camps, and adding micro houses to replace tents.  Part of what’s driving the problem is that locally in the last 20 years weekly wages have risen 7.3% in real terms which accounts for inflation, but rent has gone up 44%. 

It’s a testament to our collective will and generosity that we are not letting the challenges stop us from improving our situation.   Looking at the January 28, 2021 Point in Time data (see sidebar) there were more than 500 people in some kind of temporary housing or shelter.   Thurston County, the cities, nonprofit organizations such as Partners in Prevention Education (PIPE) and Interfaith Works, are all important and working hard to improve the situation.  Thus there is no reason to claim that “nobody is doing anything” even though it can certainly feel and look like that.

With all the focus on housing and other services, one area that requires more effort is a coordinated cleanup on a scale that matches the problem.  Undoubtedly we have the resources to do this.  What we need is the decision by our political leaders to do the work on the scale that’s required.  Olympia has done some substantial cleanups, they will soon contract to clean up the Deschutes Parkway camp, and they provide dumpsters at a number of camps.  But there is clearly more that needs to be done. 

There are abundant reasons being touted why we can’t or why we shouldn’t work on cleaning the camps, including:

  • Occupants: “They don’t care, they won’t help”. We know from talking to people in the camps that there are plenty of people who want to improve their lives, want to make their living situation better.  We can work with these folks to figure out how to maintain the camps.
  • Cost: We have the money to do this.  Olympia alone is looking at spending $2.4M on homeless services this year.  Olympia and Lacey will likely receive $5 - $10M from The American Rescue Plan some of which could go to improving the quality of the camps.  And municipal governments always have ways to find funds for those projects they think are important.
  • Health: “It’s not safe to be in the camps”. We can address COVID and the risks presented by drug waste in the camps, especially now that vaccines are becoming prevalent.  As a community we deal with hazardous wastes and situations regularly. We can use techniques and tools that we already have.
  • “We shouldn’t have to clean them”. As a community we have no consensus on precisely what we “should” do. Regardless of all of our divergent opinions of what our ideal is, the magnitude of the problem requires a response on a scale that only the local governments can provide.   Arguing about who should do what can only impede progress getting the camps cleaned. 
  • “If we put dumpsters out and leave them other people will come and use them.” Yes, some of that will happen.  That doesn’t mean we can’t address that specific problem and solve it.  Signage, public education, allies in the camps -- we can minimize the abuse to our resource.

Should we let these or other concerns stop us from moving forward and improving our community and minimizing the visual blight?  Certainly not.   Our way forward on this issue is for our elected officials to take the lead, to decide to do the cleaning and maintenance on the scale that will be successful. 

As it turns out the Thurston Regional Housing Council is moving in that direction.  They developed a proposed program called the Scattered Site Management Pilot Project(see page 5 of the linked document).  The pilot project can be found on their website as part of their March 18th agenda.  This proposal addresses three camps to start with:

  • Deschutes Parkway
  • Ensign Road
  • Wheeler

… and uses a number of techniques to intensively manage the camps.  The proposal includes initial cleaning, ongoing waste services, septic pumping, and labor to intervene and manage the camps.  It’s being forwarded to the County Commission, then they can vote to put it into action.

That’s a good start.  The pilot proposal is for one year and will take three to five months to get up and running.  But the problem is urgent and more widespread than that; we have many more camps and widespread garbage.  Olympia should decide right now to expand on that model, do another three camps.  Or six smaller ones.   There is no lack of need, and we know that we have to get them cleaned up.

Our elected officials and staff have started in that direction.  Now it’s time for them to ramp up the effort; let’s clean them all up, make our community as pleasant and comforting as it has been in the past.

Source data for this editorial came from the Housing Needs Assessment report of the Thurston Regional Planning Council. 

Pat Cole is a former member of Olympia's city council. As a private citizen he is developing plans to assist with efforts to clean up the homeless camps in Thurston County. 


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  • lookoutmtn

    Give them a damn apartment to live in!!! How many Section 8 vouchers could have been bought,.or low income buildings been built, or vacant state residential buildings been renovated with the millions wasted on all of this?

    Tuesday, March 23, 2021 Report this

  • franiazgorski

    You are absolutely right,,,, I would definitely volunteer to spend the tine and enegy helping to clean up those areas.... What do we need/want to do to get the city/county RAMPED up to act instead of talking...asap..

    Thursday, March 25, 2021 Report this