The Real Crisis In Olympia is Not Homelessness

Candy Mercer

Tolerance for harm is destroying our city

by Candace Mercer, Olympia, WA

Our regional government has been treating our problems solely as a homeless issue, but it is far greater. It also involves mental illness, substance abuse and crime. Each piece of the problem needs solutions. Housing, especially affordable rent, is a large component, but addiction, an emerging street subculture and law enforcement are factors we have been reticent to address directly as we watch our city decay in real time.

The 4th Avenue Bridge in downtown Olympia at the foot of Puget Sound is in an environmentally sensitive area. An unsanctioned homeless camp has set up under the bridge. Water testing has revealed fecal coliform bacteria due to untreated human waste. The camp is scheduled for removal on September 11th, some campers have indicated they will refuse to leave.

People are upset about changing norms for what is considered permissible behavior in our community. This is the root of our collective distress and the cause for deep moral reflection. In the name of tolerance, we are allowing anti-social behavior to become entrenched.

Some even defend theft and violence as a reasonable response if it originates with the “oppressed.” This is a rationalization used by homeless advocates and addiction evangelists to challenge the very legitimacy of the social contract. Neutralizations are euphemisms designed to loosen norms, allowing deviance to flourish unchecked.

In an attempt to quell the natural moral dissonance that comes from doing something wrong, these repositionings allow people to litter without shame, steal without guilt and cause harm without remorse. Because there is no pushback and no consequences, anti-social behavior is emboldened and lawlessness is the inevitable result.

Not just our imagination

The majority of Olympia rejects these new norms. There are far too many stories of harm across the spectrum, from aggression to assault, for this the be dismissed as mere “class discomfort.” Furthermore, it is disrespectful when victims are not believed.

Bike chop shops are numerous and operate in the open, some across from the Intercity Transit Center in downtown Olympia (center and upper right). Bicycle parts are used as currency in exchange for drugs.

Menacing/aggressive behavior, threatened assault, actual assault, vandalism and theft. So much theft. Hundreds of stolen bikes, visible bike chop shops, shoplifting, hundreds of shopping carts, cars, sheds and homes broken into. An heirloom violin that will not be passed down another generation. A child’s ashes. Yes. A child’s ashes were stolen from a hotel room in Hawk’s Prairie. The human remains desecrated, a family’s loss compounded exponentially.

A bike was stolen and someone responded on Facebook positioning property crime as a “regressive tax on ordinary people [that] wouldn’t rob us of what little ‘wealth’ we have if only everyone were housed.” Lack of housing is not driving property crime, drugs are. Theft is routinized as a form of reparations and neutralized with the term “survival crime,” the goal being to decriminalize crime itself.

It is considered shameful in Olympia to even broach the subject of addiction and related crime. We know all homeless are not addicts and not all addicts are homeless. We are also aware housed criminals are also profiting from this misery, they should not feel comfortable operating in Thurston County either.

Impact on the community

The goal is not to demonize people, but to change policy by using social pressure to demonstrate that harm, in whatever form it takes, is not welcome in our community. The primary endpoint is getting people help so they are not harming themselves either.

Olympia’s benevolence is being extorted by addicts who want to live where they want and take what they want, be it land or personal property, without interference. Citizens are expected to support, even embrace, this subculture as a valid lifestyle choice, one which will lead to chronic, perhaps lifetime, homelessness.

Unsanctioned camping under the 4th Avenue Bridge across from the State Capitol building is creating numerous public hazards. In addition to environmental issues, there is concern due to open fires. Recently, O.F.D. responded to a tent fire and found a dozen propane tanks stored next to the burned tent. Damage to this crucial piece of infrastructure would be a hardship to the community and could cost millions of dollars to repair.

Right now Olympia is enabling this subculture. Allowing civil norms to decay, the city is complicit in the harm caused to its citizens. We, as a city, are sick, and drastic action is required to heal. The politics of the situation are further dividing us as we argue over strategy and act as if we are not on the same team.

People with good hearts are being shamed for having differing values and expectations around fairness, order and safety. If we complain about impact, we risk being considered to be lacking compassion. We are slurred with the nonsensical “housie” as if shelter was not the ultimate goal for all. Intentionally or not, people are being made to feel guilty just for being housed.

This undercurrent of emotional manipulation is indicative of a severely dysfunctional relationship. The same codependent dynamics experienced at a family level when a loved one is addicted are being played out on a macro level in the community. Compassion can include boundaries, in fact, sometimes, compassion is boundaries.

People, particularly small business owners, are afraid to speak, especially at City Council meetings, for fear of harsh reprisal. Around Christmas, boycott fliers circulated calling downtown businesses “economic terrorists.” Other retaliation, in the name of “activism,” has included coordinated phone zaps and vandalism, locks glued shut, needles and knives planted upright in greenery in an attempts to harm. Customers and employees are frightened by aggressive panhandling.

“Activists” have also targeted individuals, sometimes only for sharing their personal experience — doxxing them, harassing them at work and bullying them online in attempt to silence. Self-censorship is rampant, and concerning. Many communications are done privately out of fear. This is Olympia in 2019.

Compassion fatigue

All of this is leading to collective compassion fatigue even in an extremely generous community. Relationships are frayed, tensions raised, resentment and backlash brewing.

impact on retailers is huge, both from shoplifting and from hundreds of stolen carts, which cost $200+ each depending on the model. Other costs to retailers include clean-up, damage and lost revenue. Many customers feel uncomfortable visiting downtown, the West Side and Lacey are also becoming more volatile.

Recently I helped someone at the Mitigation Site downtown. He offered me stolen goods — power tools, “like new,” and phone chargers, “I have all types.” My emotions cycled.

During the storm this winter, my disabled neighbor was assaulted 100' from my house. He was jumped from behind by two men and suffered a broken rib, bruises and lacerations. The assailants were scared off by another neighbor.

A neighbor has chased men out of my yard several times. Due to theft, my shed is useless. The last lock was tampered with and could not be opened. I had to break into my own shed.

In early June, we had our first fire in an unsanctioned camp on Devoe Street and there have been several more since, including one under the 4th Avenue Bridge and one adjacent to I-5. Someone was shot in the “Jungle,” another person shot on the Eastside. There was a brawl downtown, and a man stabbed in Tumwater. In one week.

Heritage Park has been closed to many activities due to theft at the old brewery that released toxic chemicals into the water, costing millions of dollars in remediation. We have untreated human waste entering sensitive areas like Percival Creek and Puget Sound, both of which are also under threat due to the large amount of trash and needles being left by campers. Recently the city of Tumwater picked up approximately 1000 needles from land near Percival Creek.

Lack of respect

Hearts are closing because of what is perceived as either lack of respect or active disrespect toward those paying the bills and making the donations. People are livid when they see vandalism done to the port-a-potties under the 4th Avenue Bridge for which the city pays several hundred dollars a month. It is a middle finger to the taxpayers. It is meant to be. The lack of gratitude provokes.

Visible bike chop shops send a similar message — we can, and we will, steal from you, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Another middle finger. Message sent, and received.

Port-a-potties, at a cost of several hundreds of dollars a month, were vandalized within days of being installed under the 4th Avenue Bridge. The footings of the bridge have also been extensively spray painted in acts of defiance. Campers have broken many promises made to the city, including a ban on open fires.

It is not reasonable to demand or expect respect under these conditions. Recently a representative of the Mitigation Site brought a long list of (expensive) demands for additional services to the Olympia City Council, everything from free Wi-Fi, to solar power for individual tents, to a dog run and pet food.

There was no corresponding list of what the residents were willing to do in exchange for this aid. No concurrent sense of responsibility to the community from which they ask so much. No talk of contribution, financial or otherwise.

Hardworking people, especially those who struggle themselves, are understandably upset over this attitude of entitlement. Desire to help is trashed, the same as the port-a-potties.

Yet we still have a moral obligation to care for people, even when they are disrespectful and especially when they are ill. No wonder we have so much angst and anger. But to be even tacitly OK with this bad behavior is akin to submitting to an abusive relationship.

Information is power

If you want to keep the Olympia we all so deeply love, and the Lacey, and the Tumwater, it is time to make your voice heard. Speak. We need you to. Downtown businesses have a voice, homeless activists have a voice, but there is no organized voice from the perspective of ordinary people.

Elected officials need support to make difficult decisions. Good governance must be prioritized over politics and feel good actions. Both citizens and policy-makers need quality information. Not complaints or ideology, but practical, factual knowledge from those on the front lines of the epidemic.

Dangerous workarounds for power are common. A former camp on Jefferson Street (left and center) and a site on the Olympia-Lacey border (right).

It is easy to reach out to officials in all three cities who would be willing to meet with their constituents, particularly those Council Members who are up for re-election, and their challengers. (See the end of article for more information about voting in this year’s election.) We also have access to county and state government, and we need to invite them into our conversation as well. Call them. Tell your story. Demand action.

We need input from former addicts, law enforcement, prosecutors, and the medical profession so we can decide the most effective pressure to apply. No one is going to gather this information for us. We have no meaningful local press, yet we are staying informed about events through the work of citizen journalists who share what they document. Citizens who do not consider themselves journalists are also doing valuable ad hoc reporting.

Summarizing City Council meetings, event report backs, sharing experiences of harm and success, photographs and videos, all of these spread information and should be encouraged. Facebook, Next Door, YouTube and reddit are all powerful and remarkably easy-to-use tools for both reporting and organizing. It is inspiring to see talented people who have never cared about politics stepping up and showing civic leadership.

Moral calculus

What exactly do we want? What are we willing to fight for? An Olympia we are proud to show off? An Olympia where we feel safe in person and property? An Olympia where you can be as weird as you want to be, as long as you do no harm?

What are the most compassionate and effective actions to take? How do we want policy and policing to change? Where do we stand on hard drug use, especially in public?

In which direction does our moral compass point?

Hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of which is being diverted from homeless and low income populations who need minimal help to get or stay housed, is being used for temporary solutions. The subculture of the unwilling is crowding out the needs of the unable in a competition for scarce resources.

How do we preference who to help? What happens to people we cannot help, whether for lack of funding, legal constraints or because they are not willing to work with the system? We cannot be blind to the overwhelming cost per person of detox, inpatient and outpatient substance abuse treatment, and that due to the chronic nature of addiction, people can cycle through multiple times. Prioritizing the addicted population means far less help for single parents, seniors and the otherwise disabled.

Four different unsanctioned camping sites in environmentally sensitive areas, including Percival Creek canyon (upper and lower right).

We have dozens of unsanctioned camps, spreading from the downtown core into suburban and, increasingly, rural areas. We are seeing environmental impact, how will this land be remediated? Who pays for the cleanup? Is it fair to put this burden on private property owners? It’s not fair for taxpayers to cover it either, but someone has to. It is also not fair that money that could be put toward shelter and treatment is being diverted to massive clean-ups. Some municipally owned sites are not being cleaned up at all, especially land owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The total costs of homelessness to the community in direct and indirect costs cannot be underestimated. Lacey police report 200 calls related to homelessness in a thirty day period, approximately seven per day with an average time of 27 minutes per response. LOTT, our water treatment utility, is spending an additional $280K a year on security. Businesses pay to clean and repair damage, citizens pay for broken car windows, stolen packages, siphoned gas and security systems. The list is endless.

There are also opportunity costs. City employees complain the issue is diverting time from other necessary work. Emergency rooms fill with drug seekers and assaults on medical personnel are becoming more frequent. Legitimate pain patients are being denied access to medication due to fear of abuse. Downtown is not attractive for business or pleasure. People are losing the psychic freedom of feeling safe, something you cannot put a price on. The waste of human potential also can not be quantified.

Why isn’t the state and federal government helping? Should the entire region be declared a disaster zone? A humanitarian and public health crisis? Should FEMA be involved? The Center for Disease Control? The EPA? By allowing the crisis to evolve, we have risked federal involvement and media attention that may not be welcome.

Scenes from downtown Olympia during the winter of 2018–19 including the remnants of an RV fire on B Street (left). The power cords in the previous images led to this elaborate makeshift dwelling on Jefferson Street (center).

Within ourselves, how do we reconcile conflicting moral demands? What are our boundaries? So many of us are suffering compassion fatigue, how do we address our personal mental health and limited emotional bandwidth? It can be traumatizing to witness suffering at this level, especially for children. How do we avoid pathological altruism and be effective with our donations? Good intentions do not always equal good outcomes.

These are enormously difficult questions involving intense moral calculus. But we cannot let out fear of math keep us from being clear-eyed about how we spend the money we have.

We are in crisis mode. We have to stabilize the situation. How can we balance this short term emergency with long-term planning that actually gets more housing built?

Permanent supportive housing is the ideal, but it is the most expensive option. People need help today, not years from now. A tiered system seems to make sense, but is complicated with many moving parts, and lacks adequate infrastructure. Providing immediate overnight shelter is the most cost effective option, but many will not participate for a variety of reasons, even if the shelter is low-barrier.

This is not compassion

Olympia is not The Walking Dead. People should not be downtown with visible knives, machetes, katana swords, or studded leather wrapped baseball bats in lawless shows of force. More people are carrying guns, an escalating arms race which will only make situations more volatile.

We don’t want this. We don’t want pop-up brothels and drug retailers. We don’t want our kids to be able to cop a bag next to the Transit Center. We don’t want seniors afraid to go to the Thurston County Food Bank. We don’t want our dogs stepping on needles while on a walk in the woods. We don’t want nudity or public masturbation (two separate reports in one week). We don’t want to spend the psychic energy that is the price of hypervigilance.

The best metaphor to describe our situation is an unpleasant medical intervention. As a professional, a tourniquet is not something you want to do — it is messy and hard, and the person getting the tourniquet is not very happy either and often fights the intervention. However, none of this matters, you do what you have to do to save a life.

Most of these images are from the Percival Creek area. The City of Tumwater recently picked up 1000 needles from the area surrounding the creek. City of Olympia cleaned up over 900 needles in one month in the downtown core. Many downtown businesses provide sharps containers in restrooms. LOTT, as well as downtown businesses, have reported needles planted upright in greenery in an attempt to harm. There have also been several reports of needles being used as weapons, blood intentionally sprayed on people. Needles are also a form of currency in the street subculture.

Supporting addiction is not compassion. Supporting addiction is supporting death. Due to the damage addiction causes to the individual, their loved ones and the community, supporting addiction is not a morally defensible position.

Under the doctrine of altruism and tolerance, we are being asked to support behavior detrimental to our community. This is the selfishness of addiction in action. There needs to be balance. The needs of all of Olympia should not be forsaken to the pathology of a few. We need leadership to say “Enough,” and work to restore Olympia to a safe and happy place, while also attending to the needs of substance abusers.

There has to be some level of personal responsibility on the part of substance abusers. Getting out of addiction is hard work, but there is no choice. Recovery cannot be forced. If we are to view addiction as a chronic illness, the patient should be making their best effort to follow a treatment plan.

Survival is not a crime but theft is

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the average substance abuser spends $1834 on drugs per month which is more than enough to pay rent in Olympia. Addiction leads to morally compromising and dangerous situations, including sex work. One reason the Artisan Commons Park was closed at night was due to men preying on homeless women.

The homeless are also victims of assault and property crime. Vigilante justice is percolating as the situation grows more volatile. Camps rely on self-governance and are unable to be monitored by law enforcement. Because camps are often hidden by design in inaccessible locations, is also difficult for emergency responders to provide services, particularly at night.

There should be no argument regarding safety, for person, property or environment. There should be no pro-harm, pro-theft rhetoric, but remarkably there is. Violence is defended as a reasonable response if it originates with the “oppressed.”

In Olympia, rent is positioned as theft, and protested. Actual theft is called a “regressive tax” and accepted as the result of numerous “-isms” rather than the choice of one person to harm another.

You don’t need to fuck people over to survive. It is that simple. This has to stop.

Unsanctioned camp on State Street in the winter of 2018–19 across from the Intercity Transit Center. This camp has since been removed, many of the residents moving either to the city run Mitigation Site or to under the 4th Avenue Bridge.

VOTING INFORMATION

Washington State is implementing Same Day Voter Registration for the general election on November 5, 2019. You may register to vote online, by mail, or voter registration drive up to 8 days prior to Election Day. You may register to vote in-person and update your voter registration address up to 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Candace Mercer is an artist/writer/activist who has lived in Olympia since 1996. She has worked with The Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice and the Crisis Clinic of Thurston and Mason Counties. She has written for Electronic Intifada, The Alternative Press and Works in Progress. She can be reached at therealprobleminolympia@gmail.com

All images are used with the permission of Olympia Photography and News whose mission is “to photograph Olympia. Sometimes that means photographing something that is perceived to be beautiful, sometimes something that is perceived to be ugly will be photographed. However, at all times we will photograph and document the truth that we see, whether it is ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful.’”

The Olympic Mountains (upper) and Mount Rainier (lower) from the foot of Puget Sound.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade