Lewis County is not unique in its rising population of unsheltered residents. But, perhaps unlike larger counties in Western Washington, the county could count on one hand the number of homeless encampments where people are living.
Still, these encampments present concerns to officials. After touring it in late summer, Commissioner Sean Swope said this week that the Blakeslee Junction encampment in Centralia — the longest-running and largest community of people who are homeless in the county — is a “humanitarian crisis where you have people living in conditions that are not humane. It’s not safe.”
With homelessness an intense focus for Swope over the last few months, his next step has been drafting an “Encampment Removal and Cleanup Policy,” which he presented to his seatmates on the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) during a Wednesday morning meeting. A public hearing on the matter will be held on or after Oct. 25 at 10 a.m.
If enacted, the policy would prohibit the establishment of homeless encampments on county property and give county officials and law enforcement new avenues to disband those already established.
“It stipulates that there is a designated county person going to sites, saying ‘You can’t stay here, but how can we help? How can we get you what you need?” Swope said, adding that the approach would vary for each resident, possibly including contacting family members or a support network where possible, offering transportation to a shelter, connecting people with services and more.
The draft ordinance, which the commissioner provided to The Chronicle, states that the designated personnel would be allowed to use their discretion to advise removal of sites through a process: People living at the site would be notified orally and through posted notices no fewer than 72 hours before the site’s removal. The draft also has its own section allowing an expedited process for cleanups if the area is determined immediately hazardous — defined as harboring bacteria, viruses, human waste or rot, or where sharp objects, drug paraphernalia, animal carcasses and/or garbage are present, among other things.
“If the site is inhabited, law enforcement and outreach personnel must be contacted and present for the duration of removal efforts,” per the draft.
Swope said he was told by the prosecuting attorney’s office that the policy was first created by Pierce County in a collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and tweaked slightly.
A spokesperson for Pierce County told The Chronicle the ACLU was not involved with the policy creation for the county, but the policy was taken from one enacted by the City of Tacoma. A Communications Specialist with the City of Tacoma, Megan Snow, told The Chronicle the rights organization was also not involved in the drafting of the policy, but that, “We adopted our policy from Seattle.”
Jamie Housen, with the Seattle Mayor’s Office, told The Chronicle the policy was created back in 2017 and was therefore not able to confirm the organization’s involvement in it. The ACLU has previously represented homeless individuals in lawsuits against the city’s encampment sweeping practices.
While the ACLU did not have someone available to answer the question on Friday, a spokesperson said in an email to The Chronicle that the organization “does not endorse policies that authorize sweeps which infringe upon a person’s right to due process and expose them to illegal searches and seizures, or which punish people simply for being unhoused.”
Swope’s case is that the policy is in the best interest of the community. He’s made his stance clear through several speeches in public meetings this summer calling for “accountability” to be a requirement for people receiving grant dollars related to homelessness prevention and assistance.
“The system is broken,” he has said many times, calling into question the $22 million in Department of Commerce grants spent on the issue in the county in the last couple years.
Without the exact numbers at hand, Meja Handlen, director of Public Health & Social Services, estimated between $13 million and $14 million of the total sum can be attributed to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) or other similar programs. ERAP is a preventative program for people at risk of becoming homeless.
When a line item on the ERAP was brought up in Wednesday’s meeting, Swope laid into the program, saying it discouraged people from turning out for jobs and from helping themselves.
“I personally feel that the way that these funds are being set up is a redistribution of wealth towards poor people and that they're using public health and social services across the state to be an arm of socialism,” he said.
He also said there are more jobs available than there are workers in the current job market. Ideally, he said applicants would have to show benchmarks of progress in order to continue to receive the funds, which he felt would teach responsible money management.
“Personally, my lawn is brown because we chose, within our budget, not to water our grass to save money so we could have money to provide for other things. And that is called responsibility. And if we keep putting money into services like these, I think it escalates the problem,” Swope said.
Lewis County Manager Erik Martin emphasized the entire framework of the county’s conversations on homelessness is centered around what officials think will provide the most help. He said while it’s necessary to have funds that “keep people alive,” related to substance abuse prevention and ensuring homeless people don’t die from exposure or other things, the county is also trying to find ways to help people “at the next step,” by getting them toward living in a home and contributing to the job market.
Swope and Martin both said if the ordinance is passed, it would not mean the immediate disbandment of currently-established encampments, namely Blakeslee Junction. Martin recently spoke with representatives from the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) that has jurisdiction over that land due to its proximity to Interstate 5.
“It will be a process and it will take a little time. We want to make sure there’s a place for them to go, there’s a place for their belongings,” Martin said. “There is a lot that WSDOT talks to us about that needs to be planned and coordinated and executed to potentially get that site cleared and cleaned up. It’s not without a lot of consideration for the human beings that are there now. We need to make sure that is a priority.”