Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby publicly withdrew her support Tuesday for the Winter Warming Center operated by Interfaith Works in downtown Olympia.
“I believe that management was poor,” Selby said. “Staffing seemed to look away when there was active drug use, and I continually saw drug dealers swarming around the exterior, preying on the vulnerable.”
Selby made her comments at Tuesday night’s Olympia City Council meeting, as the council weighed whether to use $100,000 in federal grants to fund the warming center during the 2017-2018 winter.
Interfaith Works hopes to extend the center’s scope, running the shelter November through March. The warming center would operate during the hours that the Emergency Overnight Shelter is closed. The idea is that the homeless population would have somewhere to go 24 hours a day during winter months, said shelter program director Meg Martin.
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“Interfaith Works has stepped up to fill a significant gap in the community for many, many people,” Martin said. “The most vulnerable people in our community are the ones who access these programs.”
Operating this updated version of the warming center would take about $210,000 — up from about $115,000 last year, Martin said. Interfaith Works can foot some of the bill, but additional funding is needed. Ultimately, the warming center won’t open this fall if it can’t be funded and staffed appropriately, she said.
Last year, demand for the warming center far exceeded the previous year’s demand, so staffing was too low, she said.
The city’s money will be contingent on Interfaith Works finding an appropriate building. That likely wouldn’t be the Alpine Experience building, which it used last year. The program also needs a “good neighbor plan” to mitigate any affects on neighboring areas.
Martin said that shouldn’t be a problem — Interfaith Works piloted that type of plan in the Olympia area.
Support for the warming center is considerable, Martin said. Staff from the Olympia Timberland Regional Library branch reported fewer disturbances in their facility, and said that customers were happier overall. She also said that senior center staff and owners of local businesses also voiced their approval.
“I think that when we don’t provide these services, a lot of places become ad-hoc day centers,” Martin said.
But people who have qualms about the center are “intimidated” and reluctant to come forward, Selby said. They include neighboring business owners, emergency responders and law enforcement.
She said other resources will exist this coming winter — including the Life Transformation Center offered by the Union Gospel Mission and the new Providence Community Care Center, which is scheduled to open in late summer or early fall.
The mayor proposed using the grant funding for acquisition and renovation of long-term housing instead.
A majority of council members didn’t support Selby’s proposal to withdraw funding. Only Councilwoman Julie Hankins offered Selby her full support.
Council members Jeannine Roe, Jessica Bateman and Clark Gilman acknowledged that the warming center wasn’t perfect. But they said it’s up to the city to find a solution to the large number of people who are homeless in downtown Olympia.
“We need to do something, and (the warming center) is part of that solution,” Bateman said.
Last year, Interfaith Works asked local government for $80,000 to operate the warming center in a fixed location: the former Alpine Experience building at 408 Olympia Ave. NE. Thurston County kicked in $40,000, while Olympia contributed $17,200, Tumwater contributed $7,200 and Lacey contributed $15,600.
Martin said the facility served an average of 193 people per day from when it opened in December to when it closed in April.
This year, some Olympia officials want to fund the program using money from the federal Community Development Block Grant program. The city council approved a draft plan for the $320,000 in available funding at Tuesday night’s meeting.
The draft includes funding for the warming center, business resiliency training, a business tune-up course, building improvements to enhance public safety, housing rehabilitation, and the downtown ambassador program. An additional $90,000 would go to administrative costs and $65,000 to repay a loan for downtown lighting improvements.
The public will have a chance to weigh in on the block grant proposal during a public hearing in July.