Thurston County leaders took two official steps forward Thursday and pledged to do more to end homelessness and opioid addiction, calling the issues public health crises.
The Thurston County Board of Health — which is made up of the three county commissioners — made the declarations at a special meeting Thursday. There is no new funding attached to the moves, but officials say county staff will now make responding to the crises a priority.
“It’s an absolute public health crisis when there’s people at risk for early mortality due to lack of shelter and housing dying on our streets,” said Schelli Slaughter, director of Thurston County Public Health and Social Services. "Our shelters are at absolute maximum capacity and the numbers still continue to rise.”
Thurston County's homeless population has risen substantially since last year. According to preliminary results from January’s homeless census, 828 people were identified as homeless, up from 534 in 2017. Of them, 324 people were not staying in shelters or transitional housing facilities, most of which were at or over capacity.
Finalized census results are expected to be released this month.
A survey by the county this spring as part of its strategic planning process showed homelessness was the top concern among citizens.
This spring, the county created the Office of Housing and Homeless Prevention to lead its response and work with cities, social service providers and other groups. It will now look to hire a homeless response coordinator.
“Thurston County Board of Health recognizes that many people seeking shelter, social services, transportation, and housing do so in urban areas where services and transportation are most accessible, and supports and joins the City of Olympia, which has the largest concentration of unsheltered residents. …” according to the county's resolution.
The board passed a separate resolution declaring the opioid epidemic a public health crisis and calling for a countywide response plan. Since 2010, 120 people have died of opioid overdoses in Thurston County.
The county already distributes naloxone, a medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, and has a needle exchange program. It will now form a task force — led by Slaughter and Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim — to look for ways to end over prescription of opioids, expand treatment, and enhance data collection and education efforts.
In March, the county filed a lawsuit against prescription opioid manufacturers and wholesale distributors. Hundreds of similar lawsuits have been filed by states, cities and counties across the country dealing with the opioid epidemic.