Johnnie Dziedziak has worked in downtown Olympia since 2000. She has seen a gradual increase in the number of homeless people in the area over the years — but a dramatic change since September, when the Providence Community Care Center opened at State Avenue and Franklin Street Northeast.
Dziedziak works at a salon on Fourth Avenue East, a block from the Community Care Center. She said these days there is always someone arguing outside the salon, that she’s always harassed for spare change. Last month, a man followed her 17-year-old customer into the salon trying to get money.
“It’s unfortunate that all I see is the negative aspect, all the people hanging around. I’m sure there’s good work coming out of that place, but we don’t see it,” she said.
Supporters of the Community Care Center say it is doing good work, despite the challenges of dealing with a large number of people in need, and criticism from neighbors. In recent weeks, the center has seen about 180 people a day, down from more than 200 a day when it first opened. People come for the center’s showers, laundry, shelter and free coffee in the day room; from there staff can help connect them to medical and mental health services and housing.
Since September, more than 100 people have been placed in housing and another 450 have signed up to receive housing, according to the center.
In the coming weeks, the center plans to add services for people experiencing domestic violence and sexual assault, along with once-a-week visits from a Veterans Affairs medical clinic and veterinary services.
Staff at the center can refer patients to Providence St. Peter Hospital and visa versa, and the hospital is benefitting from the relationship. From October to December, the emergency room at St. Peter saw a nearly 50 percent decrease in people seeking the kind of social service referrals offered at the center.
“The fact that it exists, the fact that it is where it is, the fact that it immediately drew people to the services there is an amazing story,” said Danny Kadden, executive director at Interfaith Works, which operates the center’s day room six days a week. (The building is closed on Saturdays.)
One challenge for the Community Care Center came a week before it opened when Interfaith Works, which had operated a warming center in downtown the last two winters, announced it could not afford to do so this year.
Warming centers primarily allow people to get inside and warm up, while the Community Care Center’s day room was designed for people coming off the street to decompress, get to know staff, and connect with services, said TJ Larocque, manager at the Community Care Center.
He estimates the center sees the same 300 or so people on a regular basis, many who have been connected with service providers or placed on waiting lists. The lack of the warming center this year has meant larger crowds in the day room than staff anticipated because people have no where else to go.
“The volume that comes through our day room is just way too high,” Larocque said. “You can only really connect with a portion of the people who are in there.”
On a recent afternoon, as drizzle turned to steady rain, the day room was packed with people and bags and other wet belongings. A crowd gathered around a television near the door tuned to a true crime show. There was a man with a dog, and a woman with a baby in a stroller. At the time most staff members were tied up in a training.
Ashley Hardie went to the warming center last year and now comes to the Community Care Center most days. It being so crowded can make it intimidating, and it wasn’t supposed to be like this, she said.
“This place is necessary, it helps us a lot, but you’re under a microscope,” said Art Aguilar, who said he comes most days to see friends and charge his cellphone. When he banged up his knee on a bike, he was able to get it treated at the center.
Michael Broadnax stood outside the front door with a cup of lukewarm coffee. He came to Olympia in June from the East Coast by way of Seattle and is on a waiting list for housing.
“I come to get out the rain, get coffee, but that’s not helping me get housing,” he said. “That’s all I can get from them.”
‘A magnet for our block’
Justin McIntyre has owned King Solomon’s Reef on Fourth Avenue East since 2010. His building backs up to a parking lot adjacent to the Community Care Center, though he said he didn’t find out the center was going to be located there until it was essentially a done deal.
McIntyre said there were already problems with people buying and using drugs in the alley behind the building. That is still happening, he said, and now there are more people hanging around during the day, camping overnight, and lining up before dawn to get into the center when it opens.
“This is the worst it has been. Hands down this thing that’s supposed to be helping — because that’s the thing, this is supposed to be helping the problem, that’s their goal, to help solve the homeless situation — and it has just made it a magnet for our block,” he said.
McIntyre said all this drives customers away; in the past six months he’s questioned whether it is worth operating a business downtown more than ever before.
“The city on one hand is trying to make Olympia downtown revitalized, economically viable and attractive, and yet it sites a giant detractor for people trying to shop downtown at one of the busiest street,” he said. “They took a bad situation and let it get way worse.”
Olympia police meet regularly with staff at the center to talk about management and its impacts on neighbors. Police have heard complaints about camping and trash, about drug use and dealing, and disturbances in the area, said Deputy Police Chief Aaron Jelcick.
Since it opened, police have been called there about four times a week — although that doesn’t include calls to the surrounding area.
“It’s always a challenge when you get that many people who are in one space and suffer from a lot of things, co-occurring disorders like substance abuse and mental health issues,” said Jelcick, who notes there is clearly a need for the services offered at the center.
“They have a challenge on their hands. It’s tough, and we recognize they’re really the only kind of game in town.”