PORT TOWNSEND — Olympic Community Action Programs is evaluating whether or not to continue its contract with Jefferson County for monitoring the homeless encampment at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds campgrounds, while plans to improve the situation are under discussion.
Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP), one of four agencies that have contracted with Jefferson County to provide services to those living in an encampment at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds at 4907 Landes St., proposed earlier this month converting the encampment to a “COVID Emergency Overflow Shelter,” said Cherish Cronmiller, OlyCAP executive director.
A statewide eviction moratorium came into effect in March because of the financial strains of COVID-19 restrictions and has since been extended to March 31. It does not allow the homeless campers at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds campgrounds to be removed, but if the area became an overflow shelter, that would allow OlyCAP to evict people who break shelter rules — charging them with trespassing if they didn’t leave, according to Cronmiller.
That proposal is opposed by other service providers and housing advocates, Cronmiler said last week.
OlyCAP has had a limited ability to improve the situation, as there are no consequences for the actions of those staying there, Cronmiller said.
Some 30 to 60 people are living at the fairgrounds now; the numbers shift daily, according to Cronmiller.
Cronmiller cited reports of thefts in the neighborhood surrounding the campground, suspicions of drug deals, feces found spread on restroom walls and hoarding issues, as well as the death of a woman that Cronmiller characterized as a drug overdose.
“After the death at the fairgrounds, I was considering OlyCAP’s liability and duty of care as evening monitors,” said Cronmiller in a email shared with the PDN. “Trying to monitor a situation that has no rules or consequences is not feasible, and is a huge liability for the agency.
“The agency’s duty of care is undermined by its inability to create an environment in which such a duty can be carried out.”
The campgrounds are on county property managed by the Jefferson County Fairgrounds Association, a nonprofit that is now responsible for costs related to trash, sewage and electricity costs.
The association gets little support for covering those expenses and so the county involved OlyCAP, Dove House Advocacy Services, Bayside Housing and Services and St. Vincent de Paul to assist with providing services there.
If OlyCAP were allowed to make the area an official temporary shelter, then the organization could dip into its shelter funds to help the fair association, Cronmiller said.
Barbara Morey, Affordable Housing & Homeless Housing Task Force member, is adamantly opposed to the temporary shelter having the ability to evict, saying that the homeless have a right to stay on the campground.
“People are already there. They’re not signing up for a shelter and shelter requirements should not be imposed on them,” Morey said during the Jan. 13 task force meeting.
“You are posing an artificial constraint on them for which they have not volunteered.
“They are protected by the eviction moratorium as is, but not if they get kicked out of a shelter.”
Dove House supports the idea of additional services given to those living at the fairground through working with OlyCAP case managers, but not jailing people for trespassing if they break shelter rules, said Beulah Kingsolver, Dove House executive director.
“We have some difference of opinions,” said Kingsolver on Friday. “As many services as we can bring, we believe that’s going to bring people into housing or at least some sort of stable situation and I see this as our first opportunity of a majority of the homeless population being in one place where we can actually service them has been really helpful.
“I think we’re all in agreement on that. Dove House was not in agreement on the idea that of trespassing people and putting them in jail.”
Cronmiller also said that the city of Port Townsend has said a temporary shelter might fall under the city’s Homeless Encampment Code — the campgrounds are county government owned property, but are within city limits — which requires a permit, with fencing, lighting and a variety of other requirements which OlyCAP would not be able to pay for or organize without further support.
So, earlier this week Cronmiller was planning on scrapping the shelter proposal and not renewing the monitoring contract with Jefferson County at the end of February, but conversations with the city continued as of Friday. Participants are mulling other ideas for permitting solutions and potentially having part of the campground as an overflow shelter for those who agree to stay in a shelter, instead of the entire site being changed over, Cronmiller said.
Greg Brotherton, Jefferson County District 3 commissioner and current acting OlyCAP board chair, believes that given the participation of the variety of organizations involved, a solution may be found.
“Jefferson County and OlyCAP stand with many other stakeholders in looking for solutions to the impacts on the surrounding neighborhood, the fairgrounds, and the residents of the population at the fairgrounds,” he said in an email Friday.
“All of the stakeholders I’ve spoken with are firm about wanting to protect the rights of the campground residents, while creating a safe and harmonious atmosphere.
“The county has already devoted substantial dollars to bring in a myriad of support organizations to assist with getting services to the residents, mitigate impacts to the tenants of the property, the Jefferson County Fair Board, and mitigate impacts on the surrounding neighborhood.
“We remain dedicated to that goal, and to finding a permanent location for this sort of housing assistance.”
Cronmiller is looking for another plot of land that is away from residential neighborhoods, that also still has water and restroom facilities, that could act as a larger overflow shelter, but no such property has been found, she said last week.
OlyCAP is continuing to help find other ways to improve the situation at the campgrounds, such as providing Wi-Fi and adding gravel, as the current land is primarily a mud pit, but will continue to advocate for the shelter plan, Cronmiller said.
OlyCAP’s involvement after the end of February is still being discussed as plans continue to develop and change, said Cronmiller.
Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5, or at [email protected].