Homeless shelter report points to shortages

County coordinator lists 5 priorities to Olympia City Council, including low-barrier shelter program

Staff writerFebruary 6, 2013 

Thurston County immediately needs more youth shelters and a low-barrier shelter program for adults, the county’s homeless coordinator said Tuesday in a presentation to the Olympia City Council.

The other top three priorities are a program to take youths from homelessness to housing, rapid rehousing for families, and more permanent supportive housing for adults, said Theresa Slusher, who has spent the past 10 months under a yearlong contract as homeless coordinator. In her temporary position, Slusher has been identifying gaps in the homeless services system in the county. She asked that her position be made permanent.

Thurston County has a total of 329 available units dedicated to the homeless in nonprofit-owned and -operated housing, said Anna Schlecht, Olympia Housing Program Manager, who helped with Slusher’s presentation.

In addition, there are 235 shelter beds in the Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater area, plus nine shelter beds in the rural county area, she said.

But the county is seeing only 68 percent of its capacity for shelter space for single men and women in a 90-day period. Beds at The Salvation Army are going unfilled. Meanwhile, 96 percent of family shelter space is full.

“We want to utilize 100 percent of our capacity,” Slusher said.

The Salvation Army averaged 39 open beds in January, said Phil Owen, director of Side Walk, which is a center that places single adults into shelter.

“It is not an effective use of taxpayer dollars,” said Owen. The Salvation Army receives some public funds.

Low-barrier shelter is a particular need, Slusher said, meaning fewer rules than a shelter such as The Salvation Army. Her presentation defined low-barrier as a shelter that does not require the name of the shelter resident, has an informal walk-in process and has limited rules.

Another need is rapid rehousing, which is quick rental assistance to get families in danger of losing housing quickly into other housing.

Slusher also identified the need to build more permanent supportive housing for adults, which is permanent housing that also comes with dedicated social services for residents. But she emphasized that it takes two to four years to build a permanent housing project.

Slusher talked about the need to move toward a homeless service system that focuses on issues and needs, not based on jurisdiction.

Previously, the City of Olympia has taken a large role in serving the homeless community; Mayor Stephen Buxbaum wants to shift more responsibility to Thurston County, which is in charge of the county’s state-mandated plan to end homelessness.

Buxbaum thanked the homeless service leaders for meeting, but he acknowledged, “This isn’t going to get solved tonight.”

Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869 mbatcheldor@ theolympian.com @MattBatcheldor

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