Sandra Betz was a certified nursing assistant who, after experiencing domestic violence and other complicating factors, wound up living on the streets of downtown Olympia. She had a sense of style, with her purses, dyed hair and makeup — not to mention a fondness for a dirty joke, which would be followed by a belly laugh.
But she also struggled with housing and major medical issues, including a serious leg wound. Betz died on May 28, according to a blog post written by Meg Martin, shelter program director for the Interfaith Works’ emergency overnight shelter.
Asked whether the soon-to-open Providence Community Care Center would have made a difference in Betz’s life, Martin was unequivocal.
“It would have made a huge difference,” she said.
That center is close to becoming a reality, according to Providence St. Peter Hospital officials and the other partners involved in that effort, including Interfaith Works.
Construction on the former Bayside Quilting location at 225 State Ave NE began in April and is expected to be finished in time for the center to open in late summer or early fall.
Its 9,000 square feet will be equipped with sinks, showers, laundry services and several bathrooms. It also will have a welcome desk, a day room, a coffee bar, consultation rooms and exam rooms. However, it will not be an overnight shelter.
Perhaps most important, the center will be home to 10 social service agencies, ready to connect the community’s most vulnerable to mental health, physical health and housing resources.
In time, the center also could connect them to employment and education opportunities, said T.J. LaRocque, an outpatient behavioral health manager and a nurse who will work at the center.
Key to the center: Creating a one-stop destination for those who need services the most, rather than requiring them to criss-cross Thurston County in search of those services, or to have them inadvertently place a burden on another agency unequipped to deal with the problems surrounding homelessness.
Martin is involved with the downtown Olympia warming center, which set up in the former Alpine Experience building this past winter. About 200 people came to the center daily, more than half of whom were at the highest risk of dying on the street, she said. Among those at risk: People with a combination of problems, including mental health challenges, a permanent disability and chronic health conditions, as well as age and years already spent on the street.
“Research shows that when people are disconnected from having their basic needs met, they are exponentially more likely to continue to have problems related to mental health and substance abuse challenges,” Martin said.
The community care center is not intended to replace the warming center. Instead, Interfaith Works, which runs the warming center but will be part of the Community Care Center, hopes to serve as a bridge between the two programs for people who need services but may not trust social service agencies.
Olympia police Lt. Sam Costello, who sits on an advisory council that serves the Community Care Center, welcomes its arrival. He said police officers will no longer have to make as many judgments about people they see struggling on the street, or try to figure out a best course of action for them.
In some cases, police have dealt with one person five or six times in a day. Now, if officers come across someone in crisis, they can seek the assistance of the nearby center, he said.
Martin had a similar example of a woman, who is now in her 70s and in a skilled nursing facility, but who previously bounced between local jails and emergency rooms over a nine-month period, costing taxpayers more than $500,000, she said.
That burden can be lifted with the Community Care Center.
“When people have nowhere to go, it can create stresses on other places that aren’t designed to provide shelter,” Martin said.
Downtown business owner Dave Platt of The Mailbox said he “truly hopes the center will help people.” But he also has concerns that it will attract people from outside the area who want to use it.
“You build it and they will come,” he said.
Platt was one of 65 people who attended a public meeting in March about the Community Care Center. He joined neighboring business owners in saying that they wish they had been notified sooner about the project, so that they could have provided input on the location, design and layout.
That meeting was held on March 1 and construction began in April.
“These services are needed, but do they all need to be downtown?” Platt said. “Because they (the homeless) are not coming from downtown, but it has become downtown’s problem.”
Providence and partner officials say they looked at about 45 sites. One reason they picked the site is because it’s next door to the Intercity Transit center and bus transportation, LaRocque said.
Providence and its partners want to keep communication going with downtown businesses and institute a “good neighbor plan.” Center employees will include one person who will monitor activities outside the building, LaRocque said.
But those who use the center will not be required to take advantage of the services, LaRocque said. Instead, it’s about building trust.
“If you feel clean and safe, your engagement in other departments is going to be much higher,” he said.
IS THE APPROACH WORKING?
Addressing homelessness in Olympia has come a long way for Phil Owen, executive director of SideWalk, the rapid rehousing nonprofit that will have a presence at the Community Care Center.
Owen worked at the Bread & Roses Advocacy Center in Olympia years ago when it was little more than him and a few others trying to help as many as 80 people.
Since then, barriers have been lowered in housing so that the most vulnerable, instead of being excluded from the system, are first in line for those services, he said.
Still, homelessness continues to grow in the United States. Martin said Olympia is doing a good job of working collaboratively to make the most of limited resources to address the problem.
“We’re getting somewhere with this,” she said.
Funding for the Providence Community Care Center
▪ Providence St. Peter Foundation greatest need fund: $1.2 million.
▪ Ted & Ruth Schmidt community care endowment: $900,000 over 10 years.
▪ Capital Medical Center: $500,000.
▪ Providence St. Peter Foundation Christmas forest fund-a-need: $300,000.
▪ City of Olympia community development block grant: $200,000.
Source: Providence St. Peter Hospital