Plum Street Village residents say it offers a reprieve, not a solution to homelessness

Michael Powers says there is no one reason why he became homeless.

Work was hard to come by, he hurt his back, there were other health problems. He was staying with a friend, but then the friend moved and Powers couldn’t go with him. He ended up on the streets in downtown Olympia.

“One person told me when you become homeless, life stops. That really made sense to me,” says Powers, 47. He didn’t know where he’d sleep, if he’d be woken up in the middle of the night and told to move, if his belongings would still be there in the morning. “You’re always on shaky ground.”

For the past month, Powers has lived at Plum Street Village, a collection of tiny homes on a city-owned lot tucked behind the Yashiro Japanese Garden. The community is paid for by the city of Olympia and managed by Seattle-based Low Income Housing Institute.

Powers says he sleeps better here, feels calmer, like he has room to breathe. But Plum Street is meant to be temporary housing, and Powers doesn’t know where he’ll go from here. To get a job, he says, you need a car, a driver’s license, insurance, a resume with no gaps in employment; even McDonald’s wants a resume.

Plum Street, which opened in February to single adults and couples, is one of many efforts the city has undertaken in the past year to address its homeslessness crisis. It is also raising money to build permanent supportive housing, funding shelter expansions and working with local churches to house people in tiny homes on their properties.

Residents like Powers say having a roof overhead offers some reprieve, but it doesn’t solve all their problems.

“Just because you have a (tiny home) doesn’t mean you’re going to get a job and a house with your first paycheck,” he says. “I’m tired of all the walls you run into when you try. It’s not supposed to be hard every day.”

Rules to live by

Along with the neat rows of colorful tiny homes, each with a small front porch that must be kept clear, there is a shared kitchen, a trailer with bathrooms and laundry facilities. Staff is on-site during the day, and security officers work overnight.

LIHI’s one-year contract with the city listed setup costs of $405,000 and operating costs of $613,000.

As of this past week, 32 residents were in 25 homes, with four still empty. Organizers have been staggering move-ins to give new residents time to adjust to their surroundings. So far everyone here has moved from the city’s sanctioned homeless camp on Olympia Avenue Northeast that opened in December.

Residents must work with a case manager on a plan to get into permanent housing, ideally within six months, though staff says that is not a hard-and-fast rule and people could stay longer.

John S. Brown manages Plum Street Village. Brown previously worked at one of LIHI’s tiny home villages in Seattle. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

Every Thursday, Plum Street manager John S. Brown and case manager Jovita Fenwick interview potential residents from a list the city provides. Both say living in the village is not for everyone. Sometimes they can see a problem, sometimes the interviewee sees it.

Residents have to help out with chores, they can’t have drugs or alcohol on site, can’t have food or visitors inside their homes, and must agree to regular inspections of their homes, according to the code of conduct. One resident says all visitors were recently banned after a beer can was found in a garbage can and no one owned up to putting it there.

Dayne Gienty, 26, shares his purple, 8-by-12-foot tiny home with pink flowered curtains with his fiancee, Alysha Hemenway, 22. On this day, their kitten, Loki, is tethered to the bed frame and desperate to get outside. The only other furniture is a shelf and a table crammed with belongings.

Gienty ran away from home near Olympia when he was a teen and spent years sleeping on downtown sidewalks. It was easy, he says; he could do the same thing every day without it bothering him. But it could also be hard, like the time someone shot at his tent with a BB gun and hit him in the elbow.

He knows people blame problems downtown on people who are homeless.

“I kind of feel like they got something against us that they don’t have a right to have against us. We’re the same as them. Just because they have a job and a house doesn’t make them better than us,” he says.

Living at Plum Street isn’t as easy as Gienty thought it would be. He says he is looking for a job, but thinks he’ll need a car to keep one. He’s looking for an apartment, but needs help with a deposit. He says his dream is to join the military, but he has a felony conviction he thinks could make that difficult.

Mostly, he and Hemenway feel like the clock is ticking for them here.

“I don’t think they really understand, like, it’s hard for (people) to get a job, so it seems like they’re really harsh about it. They feel like we’re using excuses, but we’re not,” says Hemenway, who has been homeless off and on since she was 10 years old.

‘Everything I owned was on my back’

Lilith Medicci, 27, lived in the Olympia area six years ago. She and her wife returned in the fall, and the first thing she saw was a sprawling unsanctioned camp in the heart of downtown.

“First words out of my mouth when we got into Olympia was ‘What happened?’” she says.

Medicci says she was kicked out of her house at 17 and ended up in foster care. For years she hitchhiked across the country before settling in Utah. She had an apartment for almost three years, but then her wife lost her job, she lost her car and they lost their home.

They went to New Orleans, then Tennessee, then Rochester, New York, always on the promise of a place to stay from people they knew. When that didn’t work out, they came to Olympia, spending a few nights in shelters before moving into the unsanctioned camp and later to Plum Street.

Medicci says she has seizures, which makes it hard to keep a job. She is trying to get an ID — her old one was stolen in New Orleans — so that she can sign up for disability benefits, and is looking for part-time work.

She says when she was crisscrossing the country as a teen, she didn’t consider herself homeless.

“I used to tell people at that time I wasn’t homeless, I was houseless, because everything I owned was on my back,” she says. “This time we’ve been hitchhiking around just trying to stabilize, and that has felt more like homelessness.”

The hope is living here will give them enough stability to break the cycle.

Follow more of our reporting on Homelessness in Thurston County

See all 10 stories
Related stories from The Olympian

Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.