At nearly every meeting of the Olympia City Council, someone gets up during the time for public comment to talk about homelessness:
In April, a social security disability attorney whose office is downtown said clients are afraid to come to her office, that people are camping, fighting and using drugs in a nearby parking lot.
In March, a mother teared up telling the story of her son finding hypodermic needles while playing in a public park.
In February, Alison Vega described walking with her children and seeing a naked man screaming at passersby on Capitol Way.
“Something needs to change,” she told the council.
Homeless people and their advocates have also come to council meetings to ask for the city’s help. At the same February meeting, a woman who called herself “an ambassador for the houseless” asked for compassion and relief from what she called persecution of the homeless; she and others asked the council to declare a state of emergency.
“Cracking down on the homeless does not work. You will not alleviate the underlying problems that make people homeless,” C.C. Coates told the council in March. “If you don’t like where we’re camping, find us somewhere else to camp, or better yet — gasp — provide us homing, housing.”
The City Council will hold a special study session Tuesday to discuss the city’s plan to address homelessness, including short-term and long-term strategies. It comes two weeks after the city hired its first homeless response coordinator, and one week after funding for cold weather shelter beds ran out, meaning more people will be looking for a place to sleep.
“We need to come up with what our vision is, what does success look like for us and how do we get there,” said Jessica Bateman, a council member who led the campaign to pass the Home Fund measure earlier this year.
That program is expected to raise more than $2 million a year in sales taxes that the city will give to groups to build and operate supportive housing, shelters, and mental and behavioral health programs.
“That being said, it’s going to take a couple years for those capital projects to open and we get people in,” Bateman said.
The city recently hired Colin DeForrest, who had been the homeless services manager for the city of Tacoma, to coordinate Olympia’s response to homelessness, including working with city staff, service providers, businesses and other groups. The position was created thanks to a pledge of up to $300,000 over three years from Evergreen Christian Community in Olympia.
Olympia police, meanwhile, are getting ready to launch a mental health outreach team and downtown walking patrols with money from the public safety levy voters approved last year. And the city has proposed zoning changes it says would lead to more types of housing being built.
Bateman said when people ask her about homelessness, she mentions all this, that cities up and down the West Coast are dealing with similar problems and that there is no easy solution.
But, she said, “This is a crisis and we need to do more.”
‘Everyone wants homelessness to go away’
Brandon Weedon looked exhausted when he came before the council at a meeting in April.
Weedon’s family has owned Fatso’s Bar and Grill on Martin Way East in Olympia for three decades. The property backs up to a wooded area and wetland that is home to one of the city’s largest homeless camps that is known as The Jungle.
Weedon described instances of violence, drug use and trash spilling over onto his property. He told the council he wants people living there to get the help they need, but he also needs to protect his business and employees.
“They shouldn’t be afraid to come into work. I shouldn’t have to be going through my parking lot and picking up needles on a daily basis. I shouldn’t have to be calling the police on a daily basis. So I ask that you guys actually help me out,” he said.
In surveys by the city, homelessness ranks high on the list of challenges facing Olympia, particularly for downtown businesses.
“Many businesses report they are losing customers and employees, and they will not renew long-term leases in the downtown. They are sympathetic to the systemic issue of homelessness and humanitarian needs, however they do not feel the City is doing enough to enforce boundaries for acceptable behavior,” according to a report by the city.
An early morning headcount by the city in January found 130 homeless people on downtown streets and more than 630 in nearby camps. With the weather warming up, those numbers could also go up.
From Nov. 1 to April 30, Thurston County funded about 100 extra beds at Olympia shelters. (In past years, the county only paid for extra beds on nights that were forecast to be especially cold.) Those beds were almost always filled, said Meg Martin, director of homeless services at the non-profit Interfaith Works.
Now that they are gone, she predicts more people will be sleeping in downtown doorways or moving into homeless camps.
Martin has been working on homeless issues in Olympia for a decade. She plans to attend the Tuesday’s meeting and hopes to hear talk of increased access to housing and shelters and resources that address the causes of homelessness.
“Everyone wants homelessness to go away. That’s the common goal,” Martin said. “It isn't comfortable for anyone how visible houselessness is in our community.”
Study session on homelessness
What: A special meeting of the City Council to discuss homelessness and housing. There will be no time for public comment; instead, a facilitator will lead the conversation among council members. Topics will include data related to homelessness in Thurston County, current city initiatives on homeless and affordable housing, and what other Washington cities are doing with car camping, supportive housing, day centers and other resources.
When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Road SW, building 28, room 111