Sergio Jaramillo was sleeping outside one night last year when it just got too cold.
“When I woke up, it was too late,” said Jaramillo, 60, who has been homeless on and off for years. “As soon as you get cold and your feet start to get cold, you can put towels and towels and towels on them but it’s not going to work.”
His leg had to be amputated due to frostbite. He’s now in a wheelchair and sleeping at Interfaith Works’ shelter at First Christian Church in downtown Olympia. The shelter closes during the day, and Jaramillo said he used to spend days killing time on the street until it reopened.
This month, First Christian decided to change that. It opened a day center in its building for those sleeping at the shelter, a bare-bones facility but one that meets immediate needs of the city’s most vulnerable.
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On a recent visit, people were stretched out on church pews that lined the walls and bare mattresses scattered about the room. An adjoining kitchen offered hot drinks, meals and snacks throughout the day. A daily schedule posted near the door included plenty of quiet time.
In previous years Olympia had a warming center for homeless people to go in the colder months that was partly funded by the city. Last year the waiting area at the Providence Community Care Center, which houses various social service agencies, served as a de facto warming center, but the crowds proved to be overwhelming at times.
Olympia Union Gospel Mission also has a day center. But Selena Kilmoyer, a longtime homeless advocate in Olympia and a First Christian member, said getting to another facility just a few blocks from the shelter is nearly impossible for some elderly and disabled people.
Kilmoyer, who helped open the day center, said it took just 10 days to get the go-ahead from church leaders.
“What we’re doing here, other people could be doing in other locales,” said Kilmoyer, who wants to see more places — maybe coffee shops or yoga studios, not just churches — open their doors. “What can you do for how many people?”
Kilmoyer has little patience for local government’s response to homelessness, which she describes as expensive and slow-moving. The assumption is that enough housing will solve the problem, she said, but in the meantime people need safe spaces.
In July, following a declaration of a public health emergency related to homelessness, city staff outlined plans to set up a tiny home village on a city-owned lot near Plum Street Southeast that is expected to open next month.
The city also is paying to expand capacity at local shelters, including helping to add a day center at the Salvation Army sometime next year.
The city’s homeless response coordinator, Colin DeForrest, did not respond to requests for an interview last week.
First Christian is not the only group trying to respond quickly to the homelessness emergency.
This month representatives from a dozen area churches formed a group called FAITH — for Faith Alliance Initiative for Tiny Houses — to look at hosting small camps or tiny homes on their properties, modeled after a program in Eugene, Oregon.
The City Council passed an emergency ordinance earlier this year regulating camps of up to 40 people, but FAITH is pushing the city to set fewer restrictions for smaller camps.
Three churches are already at work on proposals to host camps as early as January with money from a city pilot program, said Peter Cook, a FAITH organizer from The United Churches of Olympia.
“There are many people in the church community who feel that we can’t wait six months. There’s a general feeling that we have to get moving on this,” Cook said.