The Homeless in Olympia

Helping vs. enabling: our choices


We seem to have entered a world view full of absolutes, strident, uncompromising, us vs. them with very little room in the middle for a nuanced discussion of complex issues. 

This polarization, strongly holding onto our personal beliefs, plays out in so many ways.  We see it in how the political right portrays the political left and vice versa. The group on the left are socialists who hate America, the others on the right are ignorant racists.  Seriously?  Sadly, there is much to be gained politically by demonizing one’s opponents, we see this every day.   What is clear is that the name-calling and simplification aren’t accurate; they certainly don’t sound like the people I know. It is all too easy to reduce our unknown opponents to caricatures and sound bites.

We are seeing this played out locally with respect to the homeless.  Local opinions range from seeing the homeless as helpless victims needing our unlimited help, without expectations, to seeing them as violent, anti-social takers of all we have to offer, whom we need to get rid of. 

Many people seem to group everyone in the camps alike, a homogenous population,  no longer individuals with one common trait - being homeless. The reality is we have all sorts of people in our camps, some by choice, some unable to cope, some struggling to get by, some running away from domestic violence. 

Alcoholism, drug use and mental illness are by no means restricted to people living in homeless camps. There may be a higher concentration of these problems among our homeless neighbors, but dealing with people with these issues is not an uncommon experience.

Many of us have struggled with family members, siblings, children and friends trying to find a way to help without sacrificing too much of ourselves.  Finding the balance between helping and enabling can be a painful and emotional path that many families deal with.  The victims of these personal problems aren’t bad people.  We love them and care for them, yet sometimes we’re successful-- and sometimes we simply have to walk away.  We recognize that everyone is different with similar themes but different reactions, so sometimes we can help and sometimes all we can do is try to take care of ourselves.

At the downtown mitigation site there is a code of conduct that the occupants agree to abide by. There are requirements to live there. It is also a managed site with people to enforce that code.

This combination of benefits and requirements has a broader appeal for local residents; it represents a balance that is necessary for being truly helpful.

At the other camps, we’ve provided some cleanup and sanitation services without any ensuing requirements.  That addresses concerns about appearance and sanitation yet, to many people, this is an unacceptable arrangement; we tolerate and normalize irresponsible and antisocial behaviors by having no expectations for the occupants.  The new Scattered Site program that is designed to focus on three camps will both provide services and staff to actively manage the camps.  What that management will look like and the requirements we make for camp occupants is unresolved.  

What seems to be getting lost in the discussion is the assumption that we can’t be compassionate and caring about the people in the camps without sacrificing other values.  Wanting to help those less fortunate than ourselves is not synonymous with wanting to enable unsociable or violent behavior.  But somehow the discussion seems to have descended into extremes, sacrificing a thoughtful discussion of what we should be doing as a community.

Our challenge with our local camps is thus analogous to our own lives: how to genuinely help without enabling, taking care of both the campers and ourselves?  Our choices are now limited by many outside forces:

  • There is a moving target of laws with respect to evictions and squatter’s rights. We don’t know for sure what we can legally do.
  • The local jurisdictions are hampered by the fact that many camps aren’t on property they own. Some of the camps, including most of the encampments on Wheeler Ave. are owned by the state; other camps are on private properties.
  • We have limited resources for providing temporary shelter and there is no consensus of how much to provide.
  • There is no universal model on how to deal with homeless camps. Many cities are trying different approaches but we essentially have to make up our own solutions.
  • The economy has been brutal to some people, jobs are scarce, people are poor regardless of how hard they’ve worked or how hard they try.
  • We don’t have the mental health or addiction services that we used to have; the available services per capita have dropped significantly over the years. According to Mental Illness Policy.Org:
    • In 2005 there were 17 public psychiatric beds available per 100,000 population compared to 340 per 100,000 in 1955. Thus, 95 percent of the beds available in 1955 were no longer available in 2005.

So we are left at the local level with a major challenge with regional and national causes without the historical resources to deal with it. 

This the hand we’ve been dealt.  In our attempt to find the appropriate balance our actions are lauded by some for making the situation better and lambasted by others for providing the homeless with benefits we pay for.

Categorizing and polarizing the population into absolutes has the potential to either penalize the people we can help or enable the people that can care for themselves and don’t.  Our local elected officials must share with the public their intentions about the camps.

The need is urgent, and they must act and accept that any technique we try or solution we attempt will be debated and judged for how appropriate the action is.  What we all agree on is that we need to take some kind of action; the present conditions are intolerable and demand responses in scale to the problems.  Let’s encourage our elected officials to continue to act and keep an active discussion with us on their plans for the camps.

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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