Low-barrier shelter in steam plant building?

This is the fourth site proposed by advocates for Olympia’s homeless

ahobbs@theolympian.comFebruary 1, 2014 

The new proposed site is The historic Olympia Steam Plant building at 113 Thurston St. NE.

ANDY HOBBS — Staff writer

Supporters of a controversial low-barrier homeless shelter will pursue another site in downtown Olympia.

This marks the fourth attempt to find a location for The People’s House. The new proposed site is the historic Olympia Steam Plant building at 113 Thurston St. NE. It is under consideration because of its proximity to social services and the transit center.

A low-barrier shelter accepts people who don’t meet common criteria for entry – such as sobriety — at most homeless shelters.

The People’s House is a program of Interfaith Works, a consortium of faith communities. Volunteers have notified the building’s landlord and nearby businesses that they are pursuing the now-vacant site.

In 2013, Interfaith Works ended its quest for a 40-bed shelter at 1011 10th Ave. SE. Many residents in the Eastside neighborhood opposed the shelter, saying it would attract sex offenders and drug addicts. Two other potential locations also met with resistance: 406 Water St. SW and 522 Franklin St. SE.

Longtime community volunteer Jeffrey Trinin has heard mixed reactions from downtown business owners about the shelter.

“My approach is to try to educate the folks in the area so they can speak from a position of knowledge,” said Trinin, acknowledging the strong feelings that the proposal generates. “We’ll have to wait and see how discussion develops.”

Some supporters say the shelter will reduce the number of homeless people sleeping in storefronts or defecating in alleys, for example, while also connecting the homeless with treatment for mental illness and substance abuse.

“I don’t think there’s a reason to fear it at all,” said Rob Richards, a downtown resident and board member of the Downtown Neighborhood Association. “It’s going to serve folks who are already downtown. … It’s going to pull those people off the street and give them resources, give them a place to go.”

Those who oppose the shelter say it will bring more homeless people to the vicinity and further taint downtown’s image.

Downtown resident Tom Dorian owns Don’s Camera, around the corner from the steam plant on Capitol Way. Dorian encounters homeless people every day when walking to work. He said fellow business owners fear retaliation — such as broken windows and vandalism — for speaking out against the shelter.

“It seems like Olympia is becoming a magnet to homeless individuals because there are so many services offered downtown,” said Dorian, who has been in business at his current location for nine years. “I believe in reaching out and helping, but there has to be some boundaries.”

The shelter was a political hot potato in the 2013 Olympia City Council elections, recalled Frida Salon owner Darren Mills, a former council candidate. His salon is in a secluded alley off Franklin Street, making it an ideal spot for behavior such as illegal drug use. Mills says the latest proposed site is an ideal location that will meet a specific need, right where the problem exists.

“If not this, then what? We can’t just keep saying no. We need solutions,” said Mills, adding that Olympia needs to move forward on this issue. “We’re never going to find a location for the shelter that everyone is going to like.”

Along with private donations, The People’s House will be funded with $400,000 from Thurston County and $35,000 from Olympia.

“We are committed to doing everything we can to be a positive addition to the community and a positive force for change in downtown Olympia,” said Meg Martin, program director.

An educational public forum will be announced in the coming weeks, along with a formal public hearing process that will move forward after The People’s House files for a city permit.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 ahobbs@theolympian.com

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