A Lesson From Mother Nature
Squatters, Squatters Everywhere
How To Immediately Cut Our Street Population By 50%
Olympia, Washington can be one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Then, it rains. But it is still beautiful when it rains. The rain cleans the sidewalks, freshens the air, and allows the lush forests to earn the state nickname “The Evergreen State.” However, with the rain comes cold, gray skies for days that can seem unending. In fact, Olympia’s annual average of 150 days of rain and 50 cumulative inches of rainfall are not that extreme, but combined with the cold and gray, it can leave newcomers and natives questioning their decision to call it home. This includes the large transient and homeless population.
Being cold and wet the majority of the year makes it very uncomfortable to live outside. When tents, clothing, and sleeping bags get wet they rarely dry out before another round of rain comes. Mold and mildew abound. Many people living outside try to combat this with propane heaters. Others seek shelter or couch surf during the worst part of the winter. But there is another more fundamental thing that occurs during the cold, wet, and dark part of the year: Migration.
There is a reason people on the street have historically been described as transients. It is because they often move about: locally, regionally, or even nationally. Sometimes this is to avoid prosecution, other times it is to access more resources or family. But for many it is to flee the bitter cold, the scorching heat, or in Olympia’s case, the never-ending rain. I saw this cycle repeatedly while working for over a decade in psychiatric social work in the Olympia area. Over the course of five years as the Homeless Outreach Case Manager for a two-county region, I would see many of the same characters come and go. Sometimes sober, sometimes not. Sometimes on meds, sometimes not. They often returned, usually a little more haggard and worse for the wear.
They would come to Olympia during the mild and welcoming spring and summer, and stay through until heavy rains came each fall. Then they would head south. Or west. Or southwest. I would hear reports that the end of the rainbow was to be found in California, Arizona, Texas, or New Mexico. Occasionally the promised land of Hawaii would be chosen. I never knew how many of those just ended up in Seattle, never actually making it to Sea-Tac Airport. Of course, most departed the area with a thumb and a sign, or a Greyhound ticket provided by a local charity.
In Olympia, as required by state and federal policy, each year we take our county’s Point In Time homeless census on a single day in late January. This is when the homeless population in the Olympia area is typically near its annual low point. Each year, advocates and service workers, politicians and protesters are left debating the actual size of the area’s homeless population. One thing, not in debate, is that the population of people living outside in the Olympia area swells in the warmer months, when it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Some estimates put it as high as double the January count.
Nothing about that should be very surprising. Overnighting in September for my son’s annual school campout often ends up unbearably cold and wet. I can’t imagine doing it day in and day out, and definitely not all through the winter. Mother Nature just imposes too many unpleasant consequences.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Look at the cause and effect of the consequences imposed by Mother Nature:
Mother Nature makes it very unpleasant to choose to live outside in Olympia, Washington from October through April. Consequently, a large portion of the street population chooses not to live outside in Olympia, Washington from October through April. Nothing could be more self-evident and simple.
Mother Nature imposes severely unpleasant consequences on people who try to camp, trespass, or squat for a good portion of the year in Olympia. Therefore, during that time of year the population shrinks to about half of what it is, compared to when there are far fewer unpleasant consequences. If that’s the case, wouldn’t that also be true of community-imposed unpleasant consequences, i.e. enforcement and legal consequences? Wouldn’t community-imposed and severely unpleasant consequences also help deter squatters, trespassers, or “campers” who often commit property crime, vandalism, and theft to fund addictions? If you’re not sure of the answer, I can tell you that it does. It has helped in Burien, Everett, Monroe, Marysville and many other communities both in and outside of Washington. Arlington, Washington saw an 11% decrease in shoplifting and a 15% reduction in theft overall when they put a focus on enforcement around illegal camping.
The most common protest against increased enforcement is typically that street people with addictions or mental illness don’t belong in a cage. I agree. However, they don’t belong under a bridge, on the street, or in an alcove either. That only perpetrates more problems, including becoming victims themselves. When I was a psychiatric social worker, chronically homeless people were sometimes saved by getting prosecuted for a crime. They typically got diverted into treatment programs, but usually with conditions of release that had some teeth. It also dramatically increased compliance by “treatment resistant” people who did not want to end up going to jail. We desperately need more of that, as the current policies simply are not working.
Once you have someone like me calling for more enforcement, you can pretty much bet things have gone off the rails. If I had a magic wand, I could make it cold, wet, and dark year round. That might help reduce the street population, sending them elsewhere, just like Mother Nature does. But that is not really the goal, and we would be giving up the beauty and incredible quality of life we are blessed with in the Pacific Northwest. In a way, this is what we are already doing — giving up our quality of life, as well as giving up on people’s ability to recover and rejoin our community — by giving up on enforcement around these issues.