Different process needed for low-barrier shelter

The OlympianMarch 12, 2014 

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

ANDY HOBBS — Staff writer

The proponents of a low-barrier shelter have picked a tentative new location – the historic Olympia Steam Plant – and once again people are lining up in support or opposition. Like the last two proposed locations, this one has caused divisiveness in our community.

In fact, this project has been conflict-ridden ever since Thurston County’s HOME Consortium gave $400,000 to Interfaith Works last August to create a low-barrier shelter. Interfaith proposes a site and opposition builds against it. This could go on forever.

We think there’s a better way.

The objections to the three proposed sites are undeniably NIMBY reactions. People genuinely fear the impact of bringing people into their neighborhoods and everyday lives who have substance abuse problems and mental health issues, and who can’t or won’t meet the minimum standards of other shelters.

Those who object to locating a low-barrier shelter in their neighborhoods – business or residential – are not bad people. It’s natural to want to protect your family, property values or business in the face of what you perceive as a threat. Sometimes it’s hard to keep the conversation civil when it’s driven by fear.

It’s the process that’s flawed. Interfaith is picking sites first and then trying to persuade the neighbors.

What’s missing is a comprehensive community conversation.

We need a broadly constituted task force, representing as many interests as possible, to find a location through consensus rather than conflict.

The HOME Consortium seems like the logical entity to commission this task force because it controls the real estate recording fees that fund homeless housing programs.

But other groups could step up if the consortium does not. The United Way, for example, might take a leadership role.

The task force should follow a process similar to the municipal model for locating essential public facilities, such as jails and landfills, which have to go somewhere because the community needs them.

In this model, the task force would establish criteria, goals and desired outcomes. It would then apply those to a broad range of options, eventually narrowing down on the site that works best.

Such a process does not guarantee absolute agreement. But the location will have been determined through a transparent process and with some public engagement.

The HOME Consortium burdened a small, well intentioned nonprofit with considerable responsibility for resolving the region’s most difficult homeless issues. This is a bigger task than just finding a building to use as a low-barrier shelter where nobody raises too much of a fuss.

The task force should think creatively about how best to deliver services for the hardest-to-serve segment of the homeless population. In doing so, it must consider other community values, such as the city’s long-term vision for downtown.

It’s time to ease the weight off the shoulders of Interfaith Works with a communitywide cooperative effort.

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