Residents jeered and shouted “Shame on you,” as the Olympia City Council banned camping on city-owned property at a public meeting Jan. 8. The measure, which prohibits camping or sleeping on the steps of Olympia City Hall, goes into effect Feb. 8.
City Manager Steve Hall brought the ordinance to councilmembers in response to staff complaints about 20 people, most of them young adults, who were sleeping on the steps of City Hall in November and December. Hall said this was unsanitary and unsafe.
City councilmembers say they have heard from residents and business owners who support the ordinance. But the Jan. 8 meeting was so packed with people strongly opposed to the camping ban that many sat on the floor. The city’s fire marshal was on hand to keep the exits clear.
No member of the public spoke in favor of the ban.
Numerous residents and business owners told the city council to abandon the ordinance, saying that it would cause harm to people seeking shelter under the overhanging roof of City Hall.
They dismissed Hall’s claims that the impromptu encampment has caused a safety problem.
“I think the greater safety concern is the people who don’t have a place to sleep at night,” said Laurel Smith, who cited the recent death of a homeless man in the woods in Olympia.
Rob Richards, program manager of the Olympia Downtown Ambassadors, presented a letter signed by 29 downtown businesses, including K Records and Old School Pizzeria, opposing the ordinance.
The measure passed with six city councilmembers in favor. Councilmember Jim Cooper voted against the first reading of the ordinance Dec. 18 but was absent Jan. 8 due to illness.
Hall first brought his concerns about people sleeping on the steps of City Hall in November, asking for an emergency ban. Instead the city council drafted this current ordinance to ban camping on all city property, including its mini parks, public utilities property and libraries.
In the last year, City Hall has become a popular destination for homeless people. Built in 2010, the modern, four-story building has an overhang at the steps and plenty of sidewalk space for people to sleep.
“We keep the lights on at night, and it’s a dry place to be out of the rain,” Hall said.
He said that along with the campers came people who defecated and urinated on the property and had aggressive dogs, making city employees uncomfortable as they headed into work each morning.
But by the time the city council had approved of the ban, most of the campers had already left the area.
“They knew they weren’t welcome there, and they moved on,” Cooper said to Real Change by phone Jan. 7.
Advocates for the homeless had a mixed response to the ordinance. While some thought it was too strong a reaction to the problem, several felt this brought new attention to homelessness, which could lead to more long-term solutions.
The ban was “reactive and undisciplined,” said Curt Andino, executive director of the South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity, explaining that the city spent more time and thought on the selection of parking meters.
“The people sleeping in front of City Hall are at least as deserving of a thoughtful response to their plight,” he said.
Charles Shelan, executive director of Community Youth Services, agreed that the ordinance was overblown but was encouraged by the city’s efforts to support shelter. The city is giving $42,000 to Community Youth Services for a pilot project to shelter homeless young adults at a location less than a block away from City Hall, he said.
Hall is arranging a February work session with the city council and Thurston County Commissioners to discuss remedies for homelessness.