Olympia wants to open 2 homeless camps, but $1.4M price tag gives City Council pause

The site at 2828 Martin Way E.
The site at 2828 Martin Way E. toverman@theolympian.com

City of Olympia staff is proposing the city spend $1.4 million a year to operate two homeless camps for about 80 people.

The first to open would be on a quarter-acre lot the city owns off Plum Street Southeast next to the Yashiro Japanese Garden. The second would be on a 1.1-acre property on Martin Way East at Pattison Street Northeast near some of the city’s largest existing makeshift camps.

Under an emergency ordinance the council passed in June, each city campsite would house 40 adults in a combination of tents and small structures. The Martin Way site also would have space for people living in their cars. The sites would be open to residents all day and have staff and overnight security, plus bathrooms and storage.

Officials hope to have both camps open by December.

In a presentation at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Colin DeForrest, the city’s new homeless response coordinator, said the goal is to reduce the visibility of homelessness, particularly downtown, while giving the most vulnerable people living on the streets a safe place to stay.

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Both sites would be managed by Seattle-based Low Income Housing Institute, which has camps and tiny home villages in King County. DeForrest said the city would look to hire case managers from local nonprofits.

To pay for operations at the two camps, staff proposed using $391,000 from the city’s new Home Fund, along with a utility tax increase and money from Thurston County. Voters approved the Home Fund measure in February primarily to fund permanent supportive housing projects.

The City Council on Tuesday authorized the city manager to move forward with the purchase of the Martin Way property for $1.35 million. But council members questioned the cost of operating the camps — $1.4 million a year, or more than $17,000 per person per year. Council member Renata Rollins called it the “Cadillac model” of encampments.

“I have concerns about spending the money that we’re talking about on the number of people we’re talking about,” said council member Jessica Bateman. “When you start talking about spending $17,000 per year on a temporary encampment site ... that’s how much money that it would cost to house someone.”

The City Council held off on voting on the plan until its finance committee could go over the numbers. Meanwhile, city staff will talk with potential residents of the two camps and neighbors. Council members also asked for more involvement from local nonprofits.

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During a public hearing earlier in the meeting on the city’s emergency ordinance allowing homeless camps, some people objected to the location of the Plum Street camp. A group representing downtown businesses had lobbied to keep new facilities for homeless people out of downtown, and some people said this was too close.

Two parents whose children go to the nearby St. Michael Parish School also questioned the idea of putting a camp so close to a school.

Two people living on the streets of Olympia share theirs views about the dangers they face and the support their receive.

Abby Spegman: 360-704-6869