Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Jungle of Hope: Olympia’s Largest Homeless Encampment

Above: David and Kathleen Bellefeuille-Rice were among dozens of volunteers who helped on Saturday to clean up The Jungle, a wooded area between Martin Way and Pacific Avenue near 3200 Pacific Avenue, where an estimated 150 – 200 people live. The cleanup continues on Sunday.

CleanUp Efforts Underway this Weekend
By Janine Gates
Little Hollywood

Editor’s Note: Little Hollywood was provided an extended, in-depth tour of The Jungle on Saturday. Photos of specific areas and individuals were taken with permission. Interviews were also granted to Little Hollywood with permission that the information could be shared. Little Hollywood has chosen to use discretion in revealing some names and information in this and future articles.

Dave, 49, is a lifelong resident of Olympia, born at the old St. Peter Hospital on the westside and is quickly slipping through the cracks of society’s safety net. 

Waiting for Social Security payments that could qualify him for about $800 a month, he has a blood vessel that puts pressure on his brain, occasionally causing seizures. He’s going to counseling, which is the start of a long paper trail, but isnt optimistic that hes going to get the help he needs. He said it took a friend of his who had lupus ten years to qualify and start receiving payments.

Dave is homeless, and has been a resident of The Jungle, Olympia’s largest homeless encampment in the wooded area between Martin Way and Pacific Avenue adjacent to the former Desire Video business at 3200 Pacific Avenue, for the past two and a half months.

The Jungle, a 1906 classic novel written by the American journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair, portrayed the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants in Chicago and similar industrialized cities.

In Olympia, however, The Jungle is spread out over ten acres and several parcels belonging to three separate property owners. Three of the ten acres is a sensitive wetland in the Woodland Creek watershed.

A major cleanup there is underway this weekend. Instead of the area being known as The Jungle, word is out that it is now called the Jungle of Hope.

Sponsored by Just Housing, a local housing advocacy group, the Socialist Party USA – South Sound Organizing Area, and United Love in Action Coalition, the cleanup event called Jingle of Hope continues on Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. 

As volunteers gathered at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, the temperature was a bone-chilling 35 degrees. Volunteers signed liability waivers and were urged not to touch anything they didn’t want to, but to summon assistance from others who were trained to deal with sharps and other hazardous materials.

Wheelbarrows, gloves, rakes, shovels, and sharps containers were distributed. Groups were initially dispatched to specific areas in groups of three, but as the morning wore on, more volunteers arrived to help, leading to an all-out cleanup of several areas.

A huge dumpster, paid for by Indivisible Thurston County, is on site for the entire weekend.

A local business, Kell-Chuck Glass, arrived early and offered their truck to help sort and return shopping carts on the property to area businesses. By the end of Saturday, they had returned about 120 carts. There are about 180 left.

Grassroots Efforts

Event coordinators reached out through social media to spread the word about the cleanup of the camp, which is home to an estimated 150 to 200 people who have nowhere else to go.

Volunteers arrived and offered their cars and trucks to take loads to the landfill. Jungle of Hope residents also helped.

The amount of debris is massive as years of discarded trash, human waste and needles have accumulated on the property. Part of the area was a former housing site that burned down in 1969, remnants of which are still clearly visible.

Above: Tye Gundel, left, and Chelsea Rustad help coordinate cleanup activities at The Jungle on Saturday morning.

Of the cleanup effort, “one property owner is supportive, one has not been able to be reached, and the other, when contacted, allowed volunteers to use the former Desire Video parking lot to stage and coordinate the event,” said Chelsea Rustad, one of the coordinators of the cleanup.

“It’s been interesting because the first question people usually ask isn’t how they can help or what to bring, but whether we have permits. Permits of this nature don’t exist because survival camping is illegal in Olympia, even with the property owner’s permission, and that’s besides the fact that some of these people will die from exposure if they are forced to vacate their homes in the middle of winter. So there was also an opportunity to advance understanding of the city’s ordinances and how they are designed to perpetuate houselessness,” said Rustad.

“My stance and that of the Socialist Party is that legality is not morality, and helping human beings survive is more important than whatever oppressive laws happen to be on the books at that time. We also recognize that many municipalities intentionally criminalize the state of being houseless so that they can push this vulnerable population away using the police force, and dehumanize them by getting the general population to see them as criminals.

“Overall, I feel it’s not my place to judge why anyone ended up where they are. They were asking for help, and to be seen as human beings. Taking direct action to help them without talking over them or putting myself in the spotlight was the very least I could do,” she said.

Above: Tye Gundel of Just Housing, left, uses a pair of grabbers to pick up several needles discovered by Jungle cleanup volunteer Joanne McCaughan.

The homeless who live there could also be called domestic refugees. They pitch their tents and create flimsy shelters out of tarps and pallets, enduring year round weather extremes. Mazes of paths run through the property. The terrain is uneven and undulates with ravines. It would be easy to get lost at any time of day or night.

Many residents of The Jungle face medical challenges, unable to get proper medications, and lack support of family. Many are lifelong Olympians. Some are mentally challenged or addicted to drugs or alcohol. Some have been kicked out of group homes that have failed them or are escaping domestic violence. Others are new arrivals, down on their luck. Some are veterans, mothers, elderly and disabled.

Until recently, a 21 month old child lived in The Jungle, amid the unsanitary trash and debris and needles.

This past week, Olympia area evening temperatures dipped into the 20s. Around the wetland portion of the property, the temperature is at least seven degrees cooler.

Several volunteers were asked how they heard about the event and why they came to help.

“We felt like this community needed to be supported…we feel responsible. We need to work together to make a community that is clean and safe and livable for all of us,” said Joanne McCaughan. She and her husband Doug arrived early to deliver several wheelbarrows and tools and work for as long as they could hold out.

“For me, as a Christian, it’s part of the Gospel. The Gospel says that everyone deserves a home. It’s that economic justice that Jesus talked about, and the prophets talked about, and the dignity of all people. I believe God is concerned about the dignity of all people,” said Kathleen Bellefeuille-Rice of Holy Wisdom Inclusive Catholic Community Church.

“And we were invited! That’s the other thing,” her friend Saima Scott interjected. “Phoenix came to us and asked for help. When someone asks you for help, you can’t just ignore it, you know? I mean, what do you do?”

Above: Phoenix Wendt is a resident of The Jungle and started the idea for the Jingle of Hope cleanup effort. She has also created a new group, United Love in Action Coalition. She provided Little Hollywood an extended tour of the Jungle of Hope. In front of her is The Thinking Tree.

Phoenix Wendt, 35, is a resident of The Jungle, and started the idea for Jingle of Hope. She most recently formed the United Love in Action Coalition. Her efforts looking after The Jungle’s most vulnerable residents and maintaining safety and order has been met with appreciation and praise from others. She was busy along with others on Saturday coordinating supplies and cleanup efforts.

Wendt has lived in The Jungle since early June. She introduced me to residents and showed me debris strewn areas with specific names like The Mansion and The Amphitheater, trees with special names like the Thinking Tree, and a path named Blackberry Lane.  

One area is comprised of residents who were cleared out by code enforcements officials from behind the Veterans of Foreign Wars building on Martin Way near Applehill Court. 

“About sixty-five percent of our residents have chronic conditions like lupus, multiple cancers in various stages, and mental health issues….I can’t work because of cancer and other medical conditions and I’m not letting go of my people,” said Wendt, who is working to get 501(c) 3 nonprofit status for her new organization.

The area has been an encampment for decades but attracted more attention when Wendt distributed a flyer earlier this month to Olympia city councilmembers during a council meeting suggesting that the property was being cleaned and prepared for the building of tiny homes for the local houseless community.

Near or at the same time, the city, in response to recent complaints about the encampment, sent courtesy notices to the property owners informing them of the encampment on their property and requested that they correct the situation within 14 days.

Just Housing says that courtesy notices have historically led to the eviction of an encampment, but in this case, the next step is up to the property owners, who have asked the city for more time to figure out how to proceed.  

“We are trying to work with the city, the property owners, the area businesses, and our houseless neighbors in The Jungle to come up with a humanitarian path forward that addresses the concerns and needs of all parties involved. This is a complicated situation with many moving parts,” said Tye Gundel, a spokesperson for Just Housing.

Just Housing is also working with the city to work on possible revisions to the city’s existing houseless encampment ordinance.

Interviewed early on Saturday, Kevin Neiswanger, general manager of the Mullinax Ford dealership, welcomed cleanup volunteers to use their restroom, eat their donuts, and get some hot coffee.

He says residents of The Jungle are pretty respectful. 

They come over and use the facilities and grab a cup of coffee. Sometimes we chat. We don't mind that. There's good people over there. I haven't had any issues with them, he said.

He also said he doesn't want to see the residents kicked off the property in winter.

That's not cool, he said.

How to Help: The cleanup will continue on Sunday, December 17. Tents, trash bags, canopies, winter clothes, gloves, socks, bedding, hand warmers, food and drinks, first aid kits and more are being accepted by Just Housing. 

For more information, go to Just Housing at or attend a Just Housing meeting from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. every Monday at the POWER office at 309 5th Avenue SE, Olympia. To contribute monetarily, Just Housing uses a PayPal account at

Above: A child's stuffed animal lies amid debris and leaves in the Jungle of Hope.