A City of Olympia crew dismantled a large homeless encampment between Interstate 5 and the railroad tracks near the Wildwood neighborhood Thursday morning, responding to neighbors’ complaints about residential burglaries and car prowls.
Olympia has had a skyrocketing residential burglary rate in 2012 – 63 percent higher than last year as of Sept. 15, according to data provided Thursday. At the end of July, Olympia police reported the residential burglary rate had jumped 48 percent from Jan. 1 to July 31 in 2012 compared with the same period in 2011.
Lt. Ray Holmes emphasized that many of the people living in the encampment weren’t committing crimes. However, he said that over the summer police tied several property crimes, including a residential burglary, to people passing through the camp.
Also, an Olympia police program that analyzes crime statistics showed that Wildwood’s rising crime likely was tied to the camp, he said.
In August, Olympia police arrested a 37-year-old man after he allegedly broke into a home on O’Farrell Avenue. The man claimed to have ties to the camp, police said.
When police visited the camp, they found cellphones that had been stolen in several other residential burglaries. Holmes added Thursday that police fielded a call this summer about a person passing through the camp who had made a disturbing comment to a child in the neighborhood.
Rob Richards, an advocate for the homeless who works as housing program coordinator for the Capital Recovery Center, noted that part of Olympia’s rising burglary rate can be attributed to a criminal element that has moved into homeless camps in the past year. Criminals have victimized the law-abiding homeless, as well as others, he said.
“They’re not folks that are necessarily from here,” Richards said.
Richards said he and others advocates have been impressing upon police and city officials the need to be compassionate in dealings with camp residents.
“These people are living there because there’s not a housing option for them in Olympia,” he said.
This summer, Olympia police coordinated with the state Department of Transportation and BNSF Railway – which, along with the city, own the property where the encampment was – to obtain eviction notices, Holmes said. In July, the city delivered its first round of notices to residents, he said. The goal was to get people to leave without arrests, which has worked so far, Richards said.
Two campers remained Thursday morning. Brandy Campbell said he had lived at the camp for a couple of years and was angry that a criminal element had moved in.
Campbell cried as he gathered his belongings. He said campers try to police the area, but some “idiots” had begun passing through.
Neighbors concerned about crime attended a community meeting at Olympia police headquarters Tuesday night. Police briefed them about measures being taken to remove the camps, Holmes said.
Jake Thomas said his neighborhood is “delighted” with the police response, adding that the camp had not been a problem until this summer.
“Something has changed down there,” he said.
The camp area is off a dirt path near the railroad tracks at the bottom of Hillside Drive.
About 10 people from a city probation work crew joined code-enforcement officials, two police officers and several police recruits in removing the camp.
The camp was built like a fort, with sticks and piece of wood set up as beams covered by large swaths of tarp to create a roof. Pieces of carpet were hung from beams to give the camp makeshift walls. Bicycles, tables and other items were still at the camp. Two pit bulls roamed the camp as Campbell and his companion removed their belongings.
Richards said evictions are a “Band-Aid” approach because people will just move to one of a number of other camps in the city. Many campers have substance-abuse or mental-health issues that make it problematic for them to stay in shelters or access other services, he said.
Code-enforcement officials and police were trying to refer campers to social services, Holmes said.