Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Olympia City Council: Homeless Can Stay For Now

Olympia City Council: Homeless Can Stay For Now

by Janine Unsoeld

In the end, Olympia city councilmembers tonight unanimously came to the conclusion that an emergency ordinance against camping outside city hall was not necessary at this time. Councilmember Jim Cooper was absent, but had voiced his opposition to the proposed ordinance in an email to city staff and other councilmembers.

City manager Steve Hall had proposed the ordinance because the current situation of homeless persons on the grounds of city hall was presenting a series of safety hazards and concerns about public health and property.

Tonight, Hall gave a presentation to council members that included graphic pictures of bodily fluids and defecation by city hall doors, and people in sleeping bags restricting access to city information and services such as meeting information posted on doors and the utility payment box. One picture showed a needle sticking out of an abandoned backpack. In a strongly presented report, Hall urged that passage of the proposed ordinance would "send a message that city hall is open for everybody."

All councilmembers expressed their deep appreciation and concern for the safety of city staff and the public. All said they have received phone calls from the public expressing concern for the situation, but, in the end, all were willing to look at the bigger picture.

Councilmember Nathaniel Jones said he was against the ordinance because "it was too small, too limited, and myopic, frankly, focusing just on city hall. We live in a compassionate city. Olympia is a good community...mostly because we have good people."

Mayor Stephen Buxbaum agreed, and said, "This is not an Olympia problem, it's a national problem...Olympia is not alone...and I'm encouraged by the fact that we're beginning to have this conversation. Welcome to the conversation!"

Buxbaum called for a "cooling off period," and proposed a series of actions to be accomplished, including having the city's Land Use committee, which is chaired by Councilmember Steve Langer, discuss the issue at its next meeting on Thursday, December 6, at 5:30 p.m. in council chambers. He urged the committee to come up with some creative approaches to the problem. The public is welcome to attend and provide input in crafting solutions.

Buxbaum also suggested that the council have a work session on homelessness as early as possible, perhaps in late January, to discuss options on "how we can be more strategic in dealing with homelessness." He also suggested using $10,000 in an emergency allocation of council general fund money to use on the issue, if necessary.

After a shouting out of an audience member's question, "Do we have one week to shape up or ship out?" Buxbaum said, "There are obligations on both sides to work out mutual solutions during this period for further guidance, to collaborate and do the best we can together."

Councilmember Karen Rogers again called upon the homeless to be self-policing. "Keeping a low profile would be preferable - take good care of that space...."

After the meeting, Hall was interviewed by Seattle television station Q13 Fox News, which was present throughout the council's deliberations on the matter.

An audience member, Christa Lenssen, later said she heard about the meeting yesterday from Little Hollywood's story on the issue which had been posted on Facebook.

"I came because I was concerned - I drive by here everyday and see police kicking people out of the space every morning - it's a generally frustrating issue - a lot of people don't understand where folks who are sleeping outside are coming from and how unsafe they feel." Lenssen says she lives in Olympia but works in Tacoma for the Fair Housing Center, an organization that deals with housing discrimination.

Above: Damien, the homeless 26 year old Tlingit man from Juneau, Alaska that I interviewed last night, met me this afternoon at the mural commemorating the Paddle to Squaxin 2012 Canoe Journey held on Budd Inlet in late July. He gave me permission to take his picture and post it on my blog.
In the mural, Damien is shown third from the right. His brother is behind him, and his uncle is beside him, second from the right.
Tonight, after the city council meeting, Damien said it was nice that the city council would let people stay on the city hall grounds. Asked if he was going to spend the night there tonight, he said yes. He says he has no problem continuing his efforts to police other campers. "When they start yelling at 3 a.m., I tell them to be quiet."

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