Permanent solution elusive

PORT TOWNSEND — After months of camping, inevitable eviction looms.

In May, Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP) temporarily secured 25 campsites at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds campground as well as space inside the Oscar Erickson Building for about 30 people who typically stay at the winter shelter in the basement of American Legion Post 26 in downtown Port Townsend.

That’s where Brian Thompson, who lives on $1,200 a month in Social Security Disability Insurance, landed when he was kicked out of his $300-a-month yurt two days after his car broke down on the side of the road and was impounded.

Thompson said he had spent $600 to fix the car’s brakes in anticipation of having to live in it.

“I was scared out of my mind when I came out here,” he said with tears welling up in his eyes. “I didn’t know anyone out here. I had just lost everything and I didn’t know how I was going to feed myself or my two dogs.”

Under its agreement with the fair association, OlyCAP was paying $16,000 a month of what remained of some $345,000 it had received from the state in March for emergency homeless housing during the pandemic.

That agreement came with an understanding that campers would have to leave when the campground could be reopened to the general public, which came July 1.

About 30 campers were evicted June 24, but several returned in early July, including Thompson, with financial support from Dove House and St. Vincent de Paul, said Port Townsend resident Barbara Morey, a longtime community housing advocate.

“That’s when we decided we were going to make a stand and fight for a place we could stay with dignity and clean running water,” Thompson said. “I believe we have that right.”

In early July, Morey contacted the state Attorney General’s office, which then notified the county and the fair association that Gov. Jay Inslee’s eviction moratorium, which runs at least through the end of the year, applys to campers.

“I was clear with the fairgrounds: once those people hit the two-week mark of being there, they were going to reach tenant status at the fairgrounds,” said OlyCAP Director Cherish Cronmiller.

Eventually, nonprofits stopped paying the camping fees, Thompson said, and the number of campers continued to climb, and with that rise came impacts on the fairgrounds and the surrounding neighborhood.

Housing advocates surely meant well when they “put word on the street that you can go to the campgrounds and they can’t do anything to kick you out,” Cronmiller said, but “the fairgrounds is the one that ultimately has the liability.”

Sue McIntire, fairgrounds manager and treasurer, said the fairgrounds’ reputation is being “shattered” with longtime visitors and that campground revenue, which accounts for 45 percent of the fairgrounds’ annual income, has been cut in half this year due to a lack of business.

“It seems people have been camping, just not camping with us,” she said. “I’ve had several letters from people who have camped at the fairgrounds before who said they were not going to come back.”

This isn’t the first time in recent years that people experiencing homelessness have camped at the fairgrounds, though it is their longest continuous and unpaid stay. In years past, housing advocates have raised money to cover camping fees and shuttled campers between the fairgrounds and Fort Worden State Park every 10 days.

McIntire said she does not believe it is the fair association’s responsibility to host people experiencing homelessness who cannot pay the fees, which is why she said she believes the county and the nonprofits need to find a permanent way to house the campers.

Unfortunately, there is no permanent solution on the immediate horizon, said Greg Brotherton, chair of the Jefferson County board of commissioners.

“We don’t have a solution for where they’re going to go if it gets too cold or if the eviction moratorium ends,” he said.

While OlyCAP’s 43-unit apartment project is still waiting on federal tax credits to be funded, putting the project’s completion years in the future, Gary Keister, acting director of Bayside Housing and Services, said he worries about everyone, not only campers at the fairgrounds, who will face eviction when the moratorium ends.

“This isn’t just the nonprofits’ problem,” he said. “This is the community’s problem. And it’s essential we plan today, not wait for something to happen.”

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