Homeless advocates seek 'low-barrier' options

So-called low-barrier shelters could be the answer for those who can’t or won’t qualify for conventional facilities

April 14, 2013 

The Salvation Army’s men’s shelter in Olympia had a 33 percent occupancy rate in January, while the women’s program was at 26 percent. Meanwhile, a count of homeless people found 237 homeless people without shelter in Thurston County.

The low occupancy of those shelters, combined with a new city ordinance that bans camping on public property, has concerned religious, social service and political leaders, who have been looking to start a so-called low-barrier shelter that won’t require the rules that sometimes keep people out of the Salvation Army facility.

Theresa Slusher, Thurston County’s homeless coordinator, said a task force has identified a downtown Olympia site for such a shelter, which she declined to name. The group is developing a budget to make a presentation to the county for funding and said that a year lease could be signed for a shelter in July. The county has more than $1 million in recording-fee dollars that could be spent on the homeless.

The shelter could admit people that some others won’t: sex offenders, drunks and people without identification. It would also serve as a day center and have a public restroom available all day.

“Low-barrier shelter just means that there are no requirements to get into the shelter,” she said. They’re not going to be asking for ID.

“They’re not going to be asking that people are sober.”

Interfaith Works, a group of local faith communities, could run the shelter. It has been working with a group that provides homeless street outreach known as the Emma Goldman Youth & Homeless Outreach Project to find a location for the shelter, which has the working title The People’s House. Members of the group would also run the shelter.

“So we’ve got kind of this nice group that kind of all gets the urgency, understands the population and also some who have some expertise providing shelter and low-barrier services,” said Slusher, who has been part of the group that meets every Monday.

Jefferson Doyle, a community organizer and outreach worker for the Emma Goldman project, said the only barrier to entry would be someone who is violent and is a danger to themselves or others.

But there are obstacles: finding a location that sits well with neighbors, gains city land use approval, and finds funding and staff.

It’s all about “location, location location,” Slusher said. “It’s all about finding a spot where this can be located.”

SEARCH FOR SHELTER

The community group has been looking for alternate shelter locations since the Salvation Army declined the group’s request to provide more low-barrier shelter at its Fifth Avenue location this year.

The Salvation Army has space for 42 single men and 16 single women in its year-round shelter program at 824 Fifth Ave.

The Salvation Army’s regular shelter program rebounded to 58 percent occupancy for men in March, but just 27 percent for women.

Doyle, a worker for the outreach project, said he hears daily about people who have been turned away from the Salvation Army for not meeting its criteria. He is one of a group of volunteers on bikes who pull carts full of emergency supplies such as medicine, food and blankets directly to people on the street at night.

“I’m frustrated having to hear so many people on the streets at night saying I got turned away from (the Salvation Army) because I was a half an hour late for check-in,” he said. “Or people saying like I didn’t have ... proper identification.”

Other people have said that staff members at the Salvation Army have a bad attitude, or aren’t welcoming to transgendered individuals, Doyle said. Other homeless people dislike the religious emphasis of the group, Doyle said.

Shane Dillingham, 19, said he was told to leave because he hadn’t found a job in two weeks, and that he wasn’t allowed back in for two months. He said Olympia needs a shelter “where people are safe and they have beds to sleep in, but they don’t have to have a job.”

Salvation Army officials maintain that providing a program with fewer rules would be detrimental to the organization’s year-round program, and that the rules are integral to its success.

Salvation Army Maj. Bill Lum said that 70 percent of people who follow the program get placed in permanent housing.

“It’s for the person that’s ready and wants to make some real changes,” he said in a January interview.

Lum, who leads the Salvation Army’s local chapter, said the rules at the shelter aren’t for everybody. All guests must have a picture ID or take steps to get one within the first three days in the program. Each guest must make an action plan to self-sufficiency, to seek a regular job or regular income and permanent housing. Participants must take steps in that direction in the first week. People must hand over about 85 percent of their earnings so the Salvation Army can start a savings account for them. The idea is to bank money, such as welfare checks, until there is enough to find housing. Sex offenders aren’t allowed.

There is a curfew for men and women. For example, it’s 9 p.m. for women, lights must be out at 10 p.m. and wake-up time is 6 a.m.

“It’s a significant commitment on their part,” Lum said.

Lum said the Salvation Army considered lowering the barrier, such as allowing sex offenders. But the group decided against it. Lum said it lacks the resources to police such a situation.

Doyle and dozens of other homeless people and activists have come before the Olympia City Council, pleading for more shelter space. Some, from the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace, opened an unauthorized homeless shelter last month in a large tent at the city’s artesian well on Fourth Avenue. City Manager Steve Hall ordered them to leave, and they went to state Fish and Wildlife property on Washington Street, where state troopers arrested seven and their tent was seized.

Local faith leaders and Mayor Stephen Buxbaum agree that Olympia needs more “low-barrier” shelters.

The Olympia City Council earmarked $35,000 in January to the effort to find space.

Olympia has “clearly a lot of people that are on the street that the type of shelter that the Salvation Army is offering isn’t working for,” Buxbaum said.

He said he hopes for a solution within a month. Thurston County should help pay for the shelter, Buxbaum said, because it is charged under state law with solving homelessness and receives about $1.5 million in recording fees each year for that purpose. He said the county also has more than $1 million in recording fee reserves that could be used to fund shelter immediately.

“I’m very firm in my belief that we need a regional approach to homelessness,” he said. “It shouldn’t be Olympia-centric.”

EXISTING SHELTERS

If downtown Olympia gains another homeless shelter, it would join a network of programs in Olympia, most centered in downtown. They focus on three groups — single men and women, families, and youth. Combined with other social services, such as three free meals per day at the Salvation Army, they draw homeless people onto the streets of downtown.

Rosie’s Place houses youth and young adults at Community Youth Services on State Avenue. SafePlace houses victims of domestic violence at an undisclosed location.

Interfaith Works churches rotate a women’s shelter during the cold-weather months, and St. Michael Catholic Church in Olympia and Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lacey take turns hosting a men’s shelter. The Family Support Center runs a year-round family shelter at First Christian Church. Bread and Roses hosts a women’s shelter at its guest house and Out of the Woods provides a family shelter on property from the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

But the task of housing single men largely falls to the Salvation Army. If men don’t want to follow the rules, and the Army’s cold-weather shelter is closed, their options are limited.

Buxbaum said there are alternatives to the Salvation Army’s approach to shelter, that “it can be enough to provide a bed and get somebody off the street” without requiring them to save money.

“I also think it should be a priority to get people off the street, even if they are inebriated,” he said.

Some inebriated people are turned away at the Salvation Army. Others are admitted. Shelter director Mike Oravitz, who has been with the local Army since 1983, said the shelter has a breathalyzer it can use. If someone is inebriated, he will ask them to take a two-hour walk. If they come back and blow a higher level of alcohol, they aren’t allowed in.

People who are allowed in get a bed, three meals a day, laundry service, a case worker, clothing and shoes, Lum said. People can stay up to 90 days.

If someone doesn’t follow the rules, such as missing a curfew, they can return, but they have to meet with a case worker.

“So there’s a real high sense of accountability for that program,” Lum said.

He puts it bluntly: if people are not ready to leave homelessness, this is not the program for them.

Salvation Army officials also say that another program it offers, a county-funded cold-weather shelter for 25 men and four women, is detracting from its regular program. That’s because the cold-weather shelter, which runs when the temperature hits 38 or below, is low-barrier, without the other rules that Salvation Army officials say are important to the program’s success. The shelter is funded with $42,000 in county dollars.

The Salvation Army’s argument is, when the cold-weather shelter, with fewer rules, is open, the numbers in the stricter year-round program go down.

For example, the cold-weather shelter was 72 percent occupied for men in January when the stricter, year-round shelter was 33 percent occupied. Lum said the Salvation Army is about 50 percent occupied year-round. The expectation is that the program will be about 75 percent to 80 percent occupied, he said.

“Not all the people that are homeless want to be inside,” said Charley Barron, a board member of the local Salvation Army.

The cold-weather shelter is in a room separated from the shelter’s year-round dorms, with bare walls and plastic material laid out over the floor to guard against the elements. Floor mats are stacked high waiting to be used as beds.

FILLING MORE NEEDS

The trouble with cold-weather shelters is that they operate irregularly, so they aren’t predictable, Slusher said.

Take the cold-weather shelters that Interfaith Works churches rotate from November to March. They were occupied 49 percent in December and 63 percent in January.

“In my work as homeless coordinator, what I would advocate for is a year-round … shelter model, rather than just a cold-weather shelter model,” she said.

Slusher has been working under contract with the county since March 2012, charged with finding gaps in services to the homeless and collecting shelter statistics.

Slusher said cold-weather shelters are difficult to set up.

In contrast, the People’s House would operate year-round and fill other community needs that aren’t being provided, such as a public restroom, showers, and a day center. Most homeless shelters make their residents leave during the day.

Doyle is optimistic about the new People’s House. “There’s lots of potential right now and I’m really excited about the potential to provide” services that “marginalized groups in this downtown need so badly,” he said.

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

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