Too many residents in Olympia and across the Puget Sound region are desperately in need of a roof over their heads.
Our South Sound community has already dug deep to help. Smart programs are under way to reduce the suffering. But just over 3,000 people become homeless anew every year, and more strategic help is needed for the roughly 500 in greatest need.
This is why we’re encouraged to see efforts by The Home Fund advocacy group to get a tax measure on the fall ballot in Olympia for supported housing.
The Home Fund wants to publicly finance the construction of 500 low-rent housing units in Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater over seven years.
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The units would go vulnerable people with disabilities and to those with needs as simple as daily reminders to take the medications that let them live independently, according to Phil Owen, a co-chairman of the Home Fund and leader of SideWalk, an Olympia group that helps homeless people get quickly back into housing.
Lacey and Tumwater leaders are not ready to move on the Home Fund proposal in 2017, but it appears they are open to conversations in 2018. Olympia is further ahead, and helpful discussions are under way by some members of the Olympia City Council.
The Home Fund concept in Olympia would levy an additional property tax of 36 cents per $1,000 of property valuation over seven years on Olympia homes and business properties. This would mean about $90 more a year for the owner of a $250,000 property.
This would translate into nearly $2.3 million a year in new local revenue, or $4.5 million when leveraged by state and federal funds. That is enough to build 250 units over seven years, according to Owen and Jessica Bateman, an Olympia City Council member. (Bateman also works for United Way but says her Home Fund involvement is separate from her work or city roles.)
For years, skeptics have asked whether Olympia should go first to attack a regional or even statewide problem like homelessness. It’s also fair to ask whether Olympia’s quest to boost funding for public safety programs — including body cameras for police and downtown foot patrols — would be in competition for these tax dollars.
But supported housing is a big missing link for our community’s major and recent efforts to take on homelessness. And by reducing the number of people on the street, we can improve the atmosphere in our city’s downtown and reduce demands on our over-extended police.
By going first, Olympia can also ignite discussions in Tumwater and Lacey about why supported housing is such a key step in reducing the human suffering and other impacts of homelessness. Also, data show 80 percent of our homeless originate in Thurston County.
Addition of the Community Care Center in the downtown this year will provide a place to assess vulnerabilities of the homeless and rate their needs. This can dovetail with SideWalk’s diversion program that aims to help about 300 people this year with a damage or first-month’s rent deposit, along with a case manager. Its rapid-rehousing program offers other aid to get people quickly into a home, but it serves far fewer people.
Besides a warming center that is open during cold winter months, our communities already have two year-round shelters in Olympia, one run by the Salvation Army and one by Interfaith Works. There is also a small community known as Quixote Village that offers residency in about 30 tiny houses for formerly homeless persons who are transitioning to more permanent solutions. Elsewhere, apartment units are available on a transitional basis for limited numbers of people with alcohol or other drug problems.
Owen and Bateman told The Olympian’s Editorial Board recently that the key to helping homeless people deal with addictions and other challenges that land them on the street is to first get them a secure place to live.
The Home Fund request reflects this smarter approach to housing that has been supported by voters in places like Bellingham. That is why we urge Olympia’s council to engage in a serious discussion this late spring and summer. Shortcomings may be found in the Home Fund proposal, but the council can play the key role of perfecting it.
Filling the gap in supportive housing for our community’s most vulnerable should be a priority. A ballot proposal is needed this fall.