Banning downtown camping a necessary step

January 18, 2013 

The Olympia City Council deserves broad community support for recently making it harder to camp and lie around on downtown sidewalks. The current council has taken the boldest actions of any council yet elected to combat the problems of inappropriate behaviors and activities downtown.

A well-known and well-meaning cadre may shout “shame on you” at the City Council for enacting a ban on camping on public property, but we suspect the vast majority of Olympia’s citizenry is quietly pleased with the city’s actions and the message it sends.

The camping ban, coupled with recent changes to the city’s sidewalk ordinance, are already having a positive effect for business and property owners in the downtown core.

The sidewalk ordinance now prohibits lying or sitting on city sidewalks between 7 a.m. and midnight. This should eliminate people lying down on downtown sidewalks, sprawled out with camping gear, dogs or musical instruments, and posing as obstacles for pedestrians to maneuver around.

This is positive for patrons, customers, and shopkeepers tired of having their front doors treated like a toilets.

People can still sleep on the sidewalk between midnight and 7 a.m., but not in the alcoves of buildings. That’s private property and trespassing laws apply. Many downtown property owners request the city to enforce the law, though some do not.

The proliferation of people camping and lying around was getting so bad that the City Council had to do something. If council deserves any criticism, it’s for not acting sooner, until the problem literally appeared on their doorstep and then bit them into action.

But the camping ban and sidewalk ordinances are just part of the solution. Creating an alcohol impact area is a necessary next step for the city council.

We support efforts to remove the cheap, large-container, high-malt liquors and fortified wines from downtown since these beverages contribute and enable public inebriation and urination.

The city has found it necessary to remove the doors to bathrooms at the Olympia Center because people were engaging in unwanted activities there, including the theft of used needles out of the sharps disposal containers.

Do these ordinances address the root cause of homelessness? The answer is emphatically: no, of course not. With a revenue stream designed for maintaining public infrastructure and ensuring public safety and not sustaining low-income entitlement programs, the ordinances reflect what the council has reasonable jurisdiction over.

But the new ordinance does establish behavior and community expectations for a cleaner, more pedestrian-friendly, downtown environment necessary for urban vitality.

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