Activists and social service providers continue to pressure Olympia leaders to reduce homelessness and increase the amount of affordable housing.
In May, the city is expected to hire Elway Research to survey residents online and via telephone about their preference for a property tax that could help build 250 new units of affordable housing. The housing proposal stems from a campaign by the nonprofit advocacy group Home Fund.
A committee of three Olympia City Council members also has been exploring options for ways to address this issue. It’s up to the council to ask voters for the housing levy, and the city’s deadline is July 25 to put such a measure on the November election ballot.
Some people may bristle at the thought of another tax. But advocates say a public investment in housing and social services could save taxpayer dollars by keeping chronically homeless people off the streets — and out of jails and emergency rooms.
“We have a small cluster of people with a radically high public cost,” said Phil Owen, program director for SideWalk, which connects the local homeless population with housing, case management and rental assistance. “But the vast majority (of homeless residents) are relatively low-need and can be served cheaply.”
Owen, who is part of the Home Fund group, said there are 499 cases in the Olympia area that score highest on the vulnerability index, an assessment tool that determines a client’s mental and physical health risks.
Treatment for mental health issues and substance abuse is most successful when these clients have a safe place to live, he said. The levy is necessary because of the rising cost of housing in Thurston County, coupled with the opioid epidemic and federal cuts in mental health care funding.
The proposed housing levy would seek 36 cents per $1,000 in property value from Olympia households in order to generate about $2.2 million per year for seven years. If a housing levy were approved by voters, the housing project would take two to three years to develop, Owen said.
“We need to be compassionate and smart,” said Owen, adding that the Home Fund will lobby Tumwater and Lacey officials for a similar housing levy proposal in 2018.
Olympia City Councilwoman Jessica Bateman said the No. 1 issue she heard from voters during her 2015 election campaign was concern for the homeless population in downtown Olympia and beyond. Bateman told The Olympian’s Editorial Board last week that the money simply doesn’t exist for permanent supportive housing — which offers on-site case management and health services — that can get people off the streets and on their way to recovery.
“The public is yearning for a solution,” Bateman said. “Everyone should have access to a safe and secure home.”
Research is available to suggest that the “housing first” model — in which housing comes first and services follow later — is an effective solution.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that supportive housing for chronically homeless people can significantly reduce the burden on hospitals and jails.
The results show that the median monthly cost per person — which included everything from jail bookings, shelter, hospital stays and other medical services — decreased from about $4,066 per person to about $1,492 per person after six months in housing.
“Findings suggest that permanent, rather than temporary, housing may be necessary to fully realize these cost savings,” according to the report, which notes that the benefits “continued to accrue the longer these individuals were housed.”
Utah has generated headlines by using the “housing first” model to reduce chronic homelessness by 91 percent.
A report by NPR describes how a pilot project in Salt Lake City provided permanent housing and supportive services for “17 of the hardest cases” who remained in that housing two years later. Research across the country has confirmed the cost of this housing is offset by reducing the financial strain on shelters, jails and emergency rooms.
In the meantime, local activist groups such as Just Housing continue to pressure Olympia to find a solution to the lack of affordable housing and recognize the struggles of the homeless population. Just Housing supporters regularly attend Olympia City Council meetings to voice disdain at city laws that prohibit campsites or makeshift shelters in public places.
The rallying cry for Just Housing is “legalize survival.”
“There are reasons why shelters like Interfaith Works and Drexel never have empty beds, whereas shelters like Salvation Army do,” Tyler Gundel told the council Tuesday, referring to overnight shelters in downtown Olympia. “The unfortunate reality is that a significant number of folks living on the street do not see shelters like the Salvation Army as being a safe place to be.”
Maj. Bill Lum of the Salvation Army insists his shelter is safe. The shelter has 28 beds for men and 14 beds for women during non-winter months, Lum said, adding that the shelter requires guests to look for employment and save income. He said an average of 92 percent of men’s beds and 78 percent of women’s beds were occupied last month.
“I would say that our shelter is certainly safe,” Lum said. “Does it help every single person? No. But what we want to do is provide a refuge for people to get out of the weather and find a place to get back on your feet.”
As in previous council meetings, Mayor Cheryl Selby reiterated to the audience and Just Housing supporters that Olympia cannot solve the housing problem alone.
“Downtown Olympia cannot take care of everybody,” she said, urging folks to approach city councils in Tumwater and Lacey. “Olympia is one piece of the puzzle. We can’t take care of the whole community. We have to have partners.”