The Olympia City Council is poised to ban camping on city property and restrict the use of downtown sidewalks.
Citing complaints from city staff, who must pass through a gantlet of homeless people when they arrive at City Hall each morning, City Manager Steve Hall urged the council to approve the ban.
“What we have allowed to happen on the steps of City Hall is unsafe,” Hall said. “It continues to be unsafe, it’s unsanitary and it’s a significant liability not only for the community but for the campers themselves.”
The City Council approved the first reading of two ordinances Dec. 18 and will finalize the ordinances during a vote Jan. 8. If approved then, the ban will take effect Feb. 8.
The ordinances ban the use of camping gear including sleeping bags, tents, cardboard and cooking gear on city-owned property and several “mini parks” in Olympia. Camping is already banned in Olympia’s larger parks.
Another ordinance prohibits sitting or lying down on sidewalks in downtown Olympia from 7 p.m. to midnight, instead of 10 p.m., as it is now. The ordinance also lifts a current ban on busking.
Social service agencies protested the proposed ordinances, asking for the council to at least delay the decision until the city comes up with alternative to sleeping on the street. For the most part, however, city councilmembers supported the ordinances on Dec. 18, with just one dissenting vote.
Councilmember Jim Cooper strongly disagreed with the proposal.
“It is very clear to me that this type of policy — and I don’t have polls to say this, I just have a feeling in my gut — doesn’t reflect the values of Olympia,” Cooper said.
He called instead for a homeless bill of rights, similar to one passed in Rhode Island, that would protect the right of homeless people to camp in public spaces. He dismissed the idea that Olympia is doing enough.
“Olympia is doing great things,” Cooper said. “I don’t think we’re doing everything we can, and I don’t think it does justice to the city to sit here and say that.”
Cooper urged the other councilmembers to agree to meet in January to discuss how to solve homelessness in Olympia and suggested the city discuss investing hundreds of thousands of dollars toward the effort.