Mayoral candidates square off on homelessness: ‘It’s not getting better’

The two candidates for Olympia mayor say homelessness is one of the biggest issues facing the city, so it is no surprise that it is also shaping up to be a defining issue in the race.

Nathaniel Jones has released a series of policy proposals to address homelessness, calling current response efforts “weak and inadequate,” according to a campaign press release. Jones — who has been on the council since 2012 and served as mayor pro tempore until this year when the council chose councilwoman Jessica Bateman for the post — is challenging incumbent Cheryl Selby in the Nov. 5 election.

Among his proposals: opening a drop-in opioid treatment center similar to one that opened in Tacoma over the summer; launching a street outreach team that operates separate from police; launching a $250,000 pilot project next year that would pay social service agencies based on their ability to get people into housing.

He also called on the city to fast-track the opening of a daytime warming center by Thanksgiving.

Since declaring a public health emergency related to homelessness in the summer of 2018, the city has redirected funding and staff resources, opened a sanctioned homeless camp and a tiny home village. But earlier talk of opening a day center, a second sanctioned camp and a place for people living in vehicles to park hasn’t moved forward.

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Selby argues Olympia’s efforts so far, including passing a property tax increase to fund a crisis response team and a sales tax increase to help build permanent supportive housing, laid the groundwork for a regional response. Now, she says, Thurston County and neighboring cities need to step up.

“We just don’t have the scale. And that’s where it comes to these regional partnerships,” Selby said in an interview with The Olympian editorial board. “We have to show proof of concept, we have to show what success looks like to our communities or they’re not going to help us. All they see is what’s happening downtown and they’re like, ‘We don’t want that.’”

Jones says he hears from voters who supported the tax increases and now don’t see any improvement.

“People are kind of freaked out, to be honest with you,” he told The Olympian. “It’s ‘What is going on, who is in charge and how are we going to address this?’ At this point, the problem is worsening, it’s not getting better.”

Jones says he hasn’t had a leading role in the city’s homelessness response so far because he’s been serving on other committees addressing other issues. But Selby questioned his campaigning as “an outsider,” criticizing actions he’s voted on, given his time in the council’s No. 2 seat.

“You were pro tempore for seven years, you were in the room, around the table, when every agenda has been made except for the last 10 months,” she said. “It just doesn’t ring true in my heart that you feel like you haven’t been part of all these decisions.”

The issue isn’t just playing out on the campaign trail. Jones led the push last month to delay clearing a homeless camp under the Fourth Avenue bridge the day before it was set to happen. He said the clearing needed to wait until the city finds a “comparable, safe and appropriate alternative.”

Selby was the only vote against the delay, saying it undermined city staff who worked for months to move people out of there and police who were tracking safety issues at the camp.

But Jones says delaying was the best option for the city as a whole.

“I don’t think pushing those people out onto the street is the right response. I don’t think we’re any safer by doing that, I don’t think they’re magically going to go away,” he said.

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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.