Community Roots

Rob Richards: Community Roots, Camp Quixote

“Each year our city council was passing ordinance after ordinance banning certain aspects of people's existence, like camping in cars and RVs, where you can sit on the sidewalk and what times, and trying to ban panhandling and other things like that. We would protest against these things and lose every time. I think that eventually it just sort of culminated. They say, drastic times call for drastic measures.”

Former Evergreen student in 2007

Engaged in advocacy for sheltering people who otherwise would be unhoused

Rob Richards


Rob Richards: Each year our city council was passing ordinance after ordinance banning certain aspects of people's existence, like camping in cars and RVs, where you can sit on the sidewalk and at what times, and trying to ban panhandling and other things like that. We would protest against these things and lose every time. I think that eventually it just sort of culminated. They say, “Drastic times call for drastic measures.”

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Mindy Chambers: Welcome to Community Roots, a community oral history project based in Olympia, Washington about how people come together to make change and create new possibilities for themselves and their neighbors. I’m Mindy Chambers. I have lived in Olympia since 1989 and for many years I’ve worked with dozens of others to bring about practical and lasting changes to a system that puts housing out of reach for a growing number of people.

Today’s story is part of our series about the origins of Camp Quixote, a tent city that emerged in downtown Olympia, Washington in February 2007.

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It was the first visible, self-governing tent city in Olympia, a short chapter in a much longer and unfinished story about our community’s relationship with our neighbors experiencing homelessness. We were interested in how the tent city first took root and the alliances and community learning at the center of this story.

Today we hear from Rob Richards, who was just 27 when he worked alongside the unhoused community and with their allies to organize Camp Quixote. He believes the camp changed some hearts and minds and is grateful that the work continues. He remains a strong advocate for people experiencing poverty and homelessness. Here’s Rob.

Rob: I had been working at the Bread and Roses Advocacy Center for a couple of years. The summer before the camp opened we brainstormed a tent encampment - a tent city - and that we needed to open one. 

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Through the organizing, we ended up with all of these various committees, like the kitchen committee, the security team…Folks on the streets kept saying, “We need security; we need this; we need that.” One of the committees was site selection because we did want to be thoughtful about where we were located. 

We ended up deciding that we wanted to take the fight to the city itself and chose a city-owned lot. There was a vacant lot behind the Brotherhood Tavern, just off of State Street, that was perfect for it because it was tucked away enough that we could sneak in and get set up.  And then once we were set up, the City wouldn’t be able to take us down so easily.

I think what people don't realize is that this wasn't organized in a week. This was months of planning. So we had pallets and all of the material staged for everything that you saw before February 1st even rolled around. We had different volunteers and allies and advocates who were like okay, “I can store 20 pallets in my backyard.” We had stuff all over the place. The week before we called and organized for the porta-potties to be delivered on February 1st. And so we had all of the infrastructure in place because that was a big thing the folks who would be camping there was like: a) We want amenities, this has to be better than our lives now or it's not attractive, and b) They're going to shut us down if they can send the health department in and say that it's a health crisis. So a lot of thought was put into those little details.

And we just got up at 5 a.m. one day, which was really early for a 27-year-old Rob. [laughs]. But we got up early one day and just laid everything out. And I think the first day there were about a dozen tents set up and the camp doubled in size over the next 24 hours. And by the end of it, I want to say we had 30 or 40 tents set up in a circle around the common area.

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It was the coldest week. It was the first week of February. I think it got down to – I remember it being like 8 or 9 degrees a couple of those days. And I camped there a few nights. We had a tent set up for advocates and allies that could be there on-site, and so I stayed there a few nights and froze my butt off. 

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I think it was not until day two or three when I think the city manager showed up and was basically like, “If you don't move, we're gonna have to kick you out and people could get arrested,” kind of thing.

TJ Johnson was on council then and he was a supporter. I think he was the only member of council who was a supporter. The city's response was: “Get them out of there. Arrest them.” And that was a sentiment from The Olympian newspaper as well. It ran an editorial about it. But in juxtaposition to that folks started driving by and wondering what it was and stopping. And as more and more people from the community heard about it, and word of mouth spread about it, people started showing up with food and donations and warm stuff and bringing their kids down to learn about what this was and why it was.

Ben Moore's restaurant was across the alley from the camp. And they loved us so much that Michael, the chef, made a giant pot of soup every single day so we had hot soup. The community rallied around us. And that's more than anything I think what kept a lot of folks who were down there going.

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The last couple of days we thought we would be raided at any minute and that's kind of scary. We started looking for options out.

Mindy: After a week the camp moved to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, the first faith community to host the camp. For six years beginning in 2007, the 30 residents of Camp Quixote moved among seven faith communities – mostly in Olympia – every 90 days, and then, with a revision to the city of Olympia ordinance in 2011, every 180 days.

It began its final chapter as a tent city in September 2013 and on December 24 of that year, opened as Quixote Village, a tiny home neighborhood on Mottman Road in west Olympia. The site now, among several others, is managed by the non-profit Quixote Communities.

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Rob: Before the camp, I was more of an activist who wanted to change the world, but it had to be like the flip of a light switch. I didn't even have time for the long grinding work.

The folks on the streets who we were working with and doing this for wouldn't tolerate that shit. [laughs] You know? They would tell us flat out: they don't have time for this. This is their life. And so I've learned a lot about inclusion and finding a place for everybody's energy.

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Because you think of setting up a camp and you think, “Oh you just go there and you set stuff up.” But like the six months of preparation we did is why it was successful and wouldn't have been without that, right? If it had been fly-by-night, if we hadn't thought of porta-potties, if we hadn't thought of the kitchen, drawing up floor plans for it, and finding one of the dudes on the from the street contingency who was going to be a resident of the camp was a construction worker who knew how to frame stuff out. We did an old-fashioned barn raising where we brought the walls up.

There were so many jobs to be done. We would have failed if we would have kept that mindset where it's like, ‘Oh, we go to Evergreen, we know best. Or we're professional organizers we know best.”

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Just realizing that man, I don't know anything about a camp. You know? But I know these few things. And I think, again, like when we're organizing we get tunnel vision on a goal, and we forget that we need to bring people in.

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It turned me thoughtful and, I guess, patient and willing to meet people where they are. And that's just sort of like my operating principle now.

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Meg Rosenberg: Community Roots is produced by Window Seat Media. This story was a collaboration between Rob Richards and Mindy Chambers. Mindy is one of our Community Roots cohort members. She brought this story idea to us and interviewed Rob and helped to edit this story. Elaine Vradenburgh did the audio editing for this story and Nick Rawson produced the music for this series. Funding for this series was provided by the Thurston County Heritage Grant program, the Marie Lamfrom Foundation, ArtsFund, the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound, and from community support from people like you. To learn more about Window Seat Media, hear more stories, or to make a donation to support this series, visit To learn more about Quixote Communities, the organization that grew from this tent city, and to support its work, go to

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