Olympia is just one city along the Interstate 5 corridor making serious efforts to help its downtown homeless.
At the heart of the efforts is meeting basic needs.
In Tacoma, The Rescue Mission has five locations that provide emergency shelter, low-income apartments or transitional housing for the homeless. Its downtown campus on South Tacoma Way also serves 1,000 meals a day, said Brian Sonntag, executive director.
Helping the homeless, he said, often starts with calming people down and stabilizing their lives with a hot meal or a place to sleep.
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During the winter, the downtown campus houses 250 homeless people each night.
“With this facility being here, I can tell you there are at least several hundred people a night who are not sleeping in the doorways of businesses,” said Sonntag, noting the importance of locating services close to the downtown area. “That’s where the people are. You’ve got to meet people where they are.”
The mission also teaches basic life skills — everything from operating a microwave to finding employment — and shows the homeless they are valued as people, said Sonntag, a former state auditor.
“A lot of people aren’t very far from being at their worst,” he said. “Not everybody is a drug user or an alcoholic. Not everyone has a mental illness. Their homelessness might only be a temporary thing.”
Like many charity organizations, money and visibility are the mission’s biggest obstacles to reaching more people, Sonntag said. He recalled how a TV news station’s Thanksgiving report on the mission once led to a donation of 1,500 turkeys at a time when donations were scarce.
After 102 years, the mission shows no signs of slowing down.
“We do provide help for people who need it, and there is hope in there,” Sonntag said. “And if they’re looking for healing, they’re going to get it too. Might be physical, might be spiritual. We’re here to help.”
Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Mike Lonergan was executive director of the mission in 2001 when it moved about a mile from the heart of Tacoma to the edge of downtown.
Homeless people had always congregated in the original shelter’s immediate area, Lonergan said. The new location moved the gatherings out of the downtown core, but still kept services accessible, he said.
“We had looked at a lot of cities that had moved their missions out of downtown to more isolated areas, and it hadn’t really worked,” Lonergan said, referring to Dallas and Spokane.
“A true downtown area needs services for the homeless. There needs to be a place that says, ‘Go right there.’ ”