Low-barrier shelter group drops Steam Plant site

Organizers behind a proposed low-barrier homeless shelter have announced that they will no longer pursue the Olympia Steam Plant building.

The vacant historic building is located at 113 Thurston Avenue NE in downtown Olympia. In January, volunteers with The People’s House notified the building’s landlord and nearby businesses about possibly turning the site into a 40-bed shelter.

This was the project’s fourth attempt to find a location for a low-barrier shelter, which accepts people who otherwise wouldn’t meet criteria for entry, such as sobriety, at most homeless shelters.

Zena Hartung has been sole owner of the Olympia Steam Plant building since 1994. Hartung said she was open to the shelter idea, but hadn’t heard back from The People’s House about the proposal’s next steps.

As a result, Hartung said she has moved forward with her original plans for remodeling the 5,280-square-foot building. She hopes the building will be used for arts-related activities. Past tenants have included a photography studio and antique mall.

“We hadn’t heard from The People’s House for 60 days and had to make some decisions on how the water system works in the building,” said Hartung, noting that the shelter would have required a new sprinkler system and “major changes” to the building’s structure. “I’m as concerned as anyone about the issues that are facing us with the homeless downtown. … I really felt badly to have to say ‘look, that door is closed now.’”

Program director Meg Martin indicated that The People’s House would review options for resuming its search.

“We envision our program as an important asset to our community that will be a vital piece of the puzzle downtown,” Martin said in an email. “We are excited about moving forward.”

The proposed shelter has been a divisive issue in Olympia. Supporters say the shelter will connect more homeless people to resources while getting them off the streets. A downtown location is seen by some supporters as ideal because of its proximity to transit and social services. At least 60 downtown businesses and organizations have backed the proposed shelter.

However, some business owners and residents are concerned that a low-barrier shelter will attract more homeless people and delinquent behavior while further tainting downtown’s image.

The People’s House is a program of Interfaith Works, a consortium of faith communities.

The shelter would be funded with $400,000 from Thurston County and $35,000 from Olympia.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869