A way through the Jungle — Reporting from Olympia’s largest houseless encampment

 


Just Housing
Advocacy Group


The Jungle, known to some of its residents as the Jungle of Hope, is home to between 150 and 200 people living in a wooded area between Pacific Avenue and Martin Way. It is Olympia’s largest encampment of houseless community members, including people who have lived there for years and others who relocated there after camp evictions elsewhere.

In late November, an employee at a nearby business contacted Just Housing to let us know that a neighboring business had been complaining about the encampment and had possibly filed a complaint with the city. We contacted the city’s code enforcement office and learned that area businesses had filed a number of complaints, and that the city had sent courtesy notices in response to the property owners informing them of an unauthorized encampment on their property and requesting that they correct that situation within 14 days. Although courtesy notices have historically led to the eviction of a targeted encampment, we continue to be told by the city that no eviction is planned at this time and that the next step is up to the property owners, who have asked the city for more time to figure out how to proceed.

We have communicated to the city our interest in helping find a way forward that addresses the concerns and needs of all stakeholders, including the property owners and concerned area businesses, and also focuses on minimizing the infliction of additional harm and trauma on an already vulnerable population, many of whom are medically and emotionally fragile. We are extremely concerned about the possible effects on them of an eviction this winter, especially when there is no legal place available for them to go. 

We have communicated with all three property owners and most of the area businesses to urge a compassionate path forward that includes delaying eviction from the camp until people have another safe, secure, and legal place to which they can relocate, or at least through as much of the winter as possible.

We have also maintained close communication with Jungle residents to keep each other updated on new developments, and to make sure that the voices and needs of the houseless are kept centered as we work together on possible solutions. The idea for the Jingle of Hope, a very successful two-day community cleanup at the Jungle, originated with a Jungle resident who reached out to the housed community for support. (See the Jingle of Hope box on page 8 for more info.)

The city has indicated that IF the property owners and area businesses are willing to work with the city toward a solution that addresses the needs of all parties, including Jungle residents, then they would be open to considering such an effort to represent reasonable progress toward a resolution of the unauthorized encampment, which could buy us some time.

However, they have also said that in the end the camp is in violation of existing city ordinances, and that it cannot remain there indefinitely unless the camp complies with the existing ordinances or the ordinances are changed.  Neither of these is likely to occur in the near-term, and the owners can always request assistance from the city, and the Olympia police department, to carry out an eviction.

There are many moving parts to this puzzle, and no guarantee that we will achieve success. An eviction might eventually be carried out, as has unfortunately been done so often in the past. This struggle over what happens at the Jungle, and other area encampments facing similar threats, needs to be understood in the context of the larger struggle for safe and secure housing for all, which itself is one element of a broader struggle for economic, racial, and social justice.

Although we are in the middle of winter, the serious harm that could be inflicted on our houseless friends and neighbors at the Jungle is not the result of a natural disaster, but because the institutions and fabric of our society have failed them, and are failing us. We are mindful that the unauthorized local encampments are performing a largely unacknowledged public service by providing more bed-nights for our houseless community than all of the local shelters combined.

We understand that the inadequate availability of affordable and accessible housing, as well as support services for mental and physical health needs, is a regional crisis that requires close cooperation and collaboration among all governmental entities and social service providers, as well as a significant commitment of public resources. We are also aware that Olympia city ordinances presently criminalize people for simply trying to survive, and we call upon the city council to Legalize Survival by amending or repealing these ordinances, or at least suspending them through the rest of the winter.

We call upon all parties, and the larger community, to seize this opportunity to move forward together in a manner that will enable all of us to look back upon our efforts with a shared sense that we rose to the challenge, that our efforts enhanced our sense of community, and that all parties felt they had been treated with profound dignity and respect in the process.

We invite you to work with us in this important effort!

Check the Just Housing FB page https://www.facebook.com/JustHousingOly for updates, meeting times and locations, upcoming actions, and information about how you can support our houseless community members. You can also donate to Just Housing online at https://paypal.me/justhousing.

Signed by Just Housing, a local advocacy group made up of houseless community members and housed allies. Contact Just Housing at justhousingolympia@gmail.com.

 

The Jingle of Hope— a collaborative community cleanup

Between 50 and 60 volunteers participated in the weekend effort on December 16-17 to support Jungle residents who have been working under extremely adverse conditions to remove shopping carts and garbage from the woods, much of it accumulated over many years.  Originally the brainstorm of a Jungle resident, this event was co-organized by the United Love in Action Coalition, the Socialist Party USA, and Just Housing, with the support of numerous other community groups and individuals. 

Housed volunteers and Jungle residents returned over 150 shopping carts to their respective stores of origin, and removed 16,520 pounds of garbage from the woods (that’s 8.26 tons), one wheel barrow or gorilla cart at a time. 

Many thanks to the Pacific Avenue property owner for permitting us to use the old Desire Video parking lot as a staging area; the Martin Way property owners for expressing their support; Yelm Safeway for donating bottled water and cookies; Albertson’s for donating two days of Starbucks coffee and cups; Mullinax Ford on Pacific Avenue for letting us use their public bathrooms during the cleanup; GRuB for loaning us their indispensable wheelbarrows; and Our Revolution for loaning us their canopy and tables.  Finally, our heartfelt appreciation to the many community members who donated their time and over $1,800 to make this event possible! 

One Jungle resident summed up the weekend by explaining that most Jungle residents were initially quite nervous and skeptical of the idea of a bunch of outsiders coming into the woods to clean up other people’s garbage. Why would they do this?  By the end of the weekend, many residents were feeling inspired enough by both the high level of visible community support and the significant improvement of conditions in the woods to ask, “When can we do this again?”  What a transformation from feeling otherized by the city as an unwanted social burden to having a sense of agency and ownership over one’s immediate living space and a sense of genuine support from community allies.