The Newsmaker Interview is with City of Lacey Councilmember Lenny Greenstein. Last spring Discovery Institute journalist Jonathan Choe posted an informative report on why two neighboring cities (Olympia and Lacey) have been impacted differently by the region’s homelessness crises. While there are many
encampments throughout the state’s capitol city, there are none in Lacey. In fact one of Olympia’s largest encampments is in the wooded area next to I-5 which borders Lacey. Yet across the freeway, the wooded area is clean. (The contrast is displayed above in the screengrabs we took from Choe’s report). While the City of Olympia enables drug addiction and untreated mental illness (thus allowing hundreds to live a very cruel existence), the City of Lacey provides people with the help they need and demands that all citizens follow the law.
Greenstein, a 12 year veteran of the Lacey City Council, provided his thoughts on his city’s approach to homelessness. He explained why drug addiction and mental health issues, and not housing affordability, are the primary reasons for the current homelessness crisis. He also shared why he opposed his city joining the Regional Housing Council which is controlled by the City of Olympia and Thurston County. Finally, since Councilmember Greenstein is up for re-election this year, he informed us what issues are important to his campaign.
First, please provide Shift readers with a brief bio and why you decided to become a Lacey city council member.
I have served on the Lacey City Council for almost 12 years, continually fighting to support public safety and keep taxes as low as possible. Prior to this I served as Chair of the Lacey Planning Commission as well as President of the Horizon Point HOA. I served as President of the HOA, the largest in Thurston County, for 13 years. I have owned small businesses most of my life and currently manage the Western US for an insurance brokerage. I have been married to my best friend, Cathie, for 34 years and have 4 amazing daughters, and the joy of my life, 7 grandchildren.
Earlier this year journalist Jonathan Choe released a video report on the difference between how the neighboring cities of Olympia and Lacey are handling large homeless encampments. On Sleater Kinney Road there was a large and growing homeless encampment on the Olympia side of the border, while on the Lacey side, there was no encampment. Why the difference?
When Jonathan Choe wrote his report, he actually interviewed me. We did the interview while walking through the camp behind Hobby Lobby. It was truly disgusting. The bottom line is a matter of political will. Lacey has looked for solutions to encampments.
We worked with the DOT, which owns the property where these encampments are located. We came to an agreement. We could not remove people from the site on the Lacey side of I5 but we could stop letting new people join the camp and we could stop people who left from returning. This took a few months, but we cleaned up the camp and currently have no encampments in the City of Lacey. We simply enforce our camping and parking ordinances which doesn’t allow these encampments. DOT offered the same arrangement to Olympia for the Hobby Lobby camp, but they refused. Allowing people to live in these conditions is unacceptable.
We have to help those people who are willing to get off drugs, and those who aren’t, need to be held accountable to following the rules that the rest of us are required to follow.
There is an on-going debate on the root cause of homelessness. There are some who believe it is a housing affordability issue while others believe addiction and mental health issues are the primary causes. What do you believe are the key reasons behind the growth of homeless encampments?
I really don’t believe there should be any debate on this. The visible homeless problem that we are experiencing is clearly a drug and mental health issue. Don’t get me wrong, housing affordability in our area is an issue but it is separate and distinct from the homeless situation.
People who are struggling financially do not typically wind up in a tent along I-5. There are many programs available to those in this situation to avoid winding up in a tent. The people living in these tent encampments are either drug addicted, have mental health issues, or both. These people need help, but not just to be moved indoors to continue on the same path. They need professional help with their addictions and mental health issues so they can become productive members of our community.
As I said before, those who aren’t willing to get the help they need should be held accountable to following all of the laws that the rest of us have to follow.
You have been reluctant to have the City of Lacey become involved in homeless efforts directed by the Regional Housing Council (RHC) which is controlled by Thurston County and the City of Olympia. What are your concerns towards your city’s involvement?
My reluctance to having Lacey join the RHC has several reasons. The primary one is why should we spend the tax dollars that Lacey residents pay to work on another jurisdiction’s problems, especially when Lacey is clearly doing a better job of dealing with the homeless situation. Our mobile outreach and rapid response teams are actually helping people get off drugs and out of homelessness.
The RHC model focuses on affordability, which is a completely separate issue in my opinion. As long as elected officials continue to use affordability as the reason for encampments we will not make progress in solving the problem. This is a problem of drug abuse and mental health.
Lacey should continue on the path we have started on, as it is working. Instead of joining the RHC and following the failed Olympia model the other jurisdictions should follow our lead. Lacey taxpayers deserve to have their hard earned money spent in Lacey on proven options.
You are up for re-election this year. Besides homelessness, what are the major issues in your race? What are the major differences between you and your opponent?
My platform since I first ran for office has always been public safety first. I believe this is the most important job of local government. In this effort I chair the Thurston Communications (911) Committee and am Vice Chair of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) for Thurston County. I also Chair the Law Enforcement Officers and Firefighters Disability Board for Lacey.
I think the other big issue facing us right now is crime. Lacey police do a great job but until other jurisdictions start taking crime seriously it will continue to be a difficult task. We need to continue supporting our law enforcement in order to keep our community safe. I have the support of the Lacey Police, Sheriff Sanders, former Sheriff Snaza and former Police Chief, Pierpoint, because they know that I put public safety first.