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Taking back downtown Olympia, part 3: Shelter from the storm | SPECIAL REPORT

A police cruiser pulled to a stop near the Olympia Timberland Regional Library and the officer confronted a disheveled young man in the street.

As a hub for the homeless, the library has become a hot spot for nuisance calls to police.

The officer said he was called because the backpack-wearing man was being “a pain in the ass” at the library. Officers quickly banned the man from the library for 30 days and sent him on his way.

Pat Gallaher, wearing a camouflage safari hat and a tooth-free grin, watched from the sidewalk as the scene unfolded.

Gallaher said he knew the man was homeless, and had mental health problems and anger issues. He also said the man was misunderstood.

“He yells a lot,” said Gallaher, 55. “He’s more of a danger to himself than to other people.”

Like the man with the backpack, Gallaher is homeless. And any discussion of sprucing up Olympia’s city center doesn’t get far before the issue of the homeless arises.

Civic and business leaders have long pressured the city to reduce crime and homelessness downtown.

Several recent city code changes have targeted specific behaviors. One prohibits sitting and lying on downtown sidewalks from 7 a.m. to midnight. Another bans camping on public property.

Olympia is not alone in banning activity associated with the homeless. However, it hasn’t gone as far as some neighboring cities in ousting the homeless or prohibiting panhandling.

Advocates for the homeless argue that the new city codes criminalize behavior while ignoring the root problem: lack of housing.

A recent report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., concludes that housing, rather than criminalization, is a more affordable and effective alternative when addressing homelessness.

Olympia and other cities have turned to shelters as bridges between the streets and permanent housing.

A concentration of shelters downtown draws the homeless there, but not everyone wants a shelter near them.

Some residents and business owners, for example, opposed efforts to open a downtown shelter without sobriety rules. Opponents feared the shelter would attract drug activity and delinquent behavior.

Still, many people in the homeless and business communities have forged healthful relationships with one another. Gallaher, for one, keeps a close eye on his block at Franklin Street and Eighth Avenue. He sweeps the sidewalks and picks up litter around First Christian Church.

“Some of these clowns just trash the place,” he said. “We have the same problems with the homeless, too.”

The “bad apples” leave behind needles, beer cans and feces, Gallaher said. In fact, he said, he can tell when certain people are in jail — or have moved on — because he no longer finds their garbage.

Gallaher said his turf gets more respect from street folks compared to other parts of downtown. He makes sure of that.

“I’ve got a walking stick,” he said of his enforcement tool. “It’ll break anything.”

Gallaher has a less contentious relationship with others on the block.

Suzanne Fair, co-owner of Olympia Copy and Printing, pays him to sweep the sidewalk in front of her business. Recently, after someone kicked in a window late at night, Gallaher called Fair about the vandalism and waited for police to arrive.

“He stayed here to make sure nobody else broke in,” she said. “We’re very grateful to this gentleman for helping us.”

Gallaher has been homeless in Olympia for the past two years. He said the hardest thing to find is a place to shower and wash clothes, and he has no interest in a shelter that requires sobriety.

Daytime shelter from inclement weather isn’t far from Gallaher’s turf.

“That’s the only place you got,” he said, pointing at the library.

Manager Donna Feddern said anyone is welcome at the library, but appropriate behavior is expected so the library can maintain a comfortable atmosphere.

“We’re not anti-homeless,” she said. “We’re anti-bad behavior.”

The library also is a key connection for homeless resources. For example, patrons can use the courtesy phone or computers to find employment. Staff members also can help with social service information, Feddern said.

“Public libraries treat everybody equally,” she said. “We serve the community we have.”

SHELTER SCENE

The number of homeless people in Thurston County has fallen in the past five years, dropping to 599 in 2014 from 745 in 2009, according to the Thurston County Point-in-Time Count.

However, one segment of the county’s homeless — those not living in shelters, but in places such as cars, parks, abandoned buildings or on the streets — is up.

Volunteers counted 263 such “unsheltered” people in 2014.

About 80 percent of the homeless are from Thurston County, with 14 percent from elsewhere in Washington and 6 percent from out-of-state, according to the Thurston County homeless census.

Shelters are seen as a key step toward getting the homeless off the streets and back into permanent housing. Downtown Olympia has about 253 shelter beds in eight facilities, the census reports.

Service providers say treatment for drug addiction or mental illness, which often lead to homelessness in the first place, is more effective if the person isn’t struggling to find a place to sleep at the same time.

“We don’t need more vigilance. We need compassion,” said Sam Miller, a chemical dependency counselor who was homeless in Olympia for two years. “We need a true equal partnership between law enforcement and social services.”

Some shelters in the city, such as the Salvation Army, provide beds for men and women, while Drexel House serves only men.

Each shelter has its own rules and services, but at their core, they link the homeless to resources that help foster self-sufficiency. The Salvation Army has reported that up to 70 percent of people who follow its program get placed in permanent housing.

This year has seen an increase in the number of shelters downtown.

Pear Blossom Place at 837 Seventh Ave. SE opened in July and operates around the clock. It has six rooms with 28 beds for families with children. Another seven subsidized apartments can shelter up to 32 more people.

It replaced the overnight shelter at First Christian Church at 701 Franklin St. SE. The church’s basement had served about 30 people a night for seven years.

The basement won’t stay empty for long. Interfaith Works plans to open a new overnight shelter there Nov. 1. The 42-bed shelter will serve the most vulnerable homeless people — and track their progress.

Organizers will gather clients’ background, health information and housing history for a “vulnerability index” that determines their fragility. The most at-risk clients will get higher priority for shelter beds.

Drugs and high-risk sex offenders are prohibited, but unlike at most shelters for adults, sobriety is not a requirement.

That’s an unnecessary barrier and shows the need for more accessible shelters to get people off the streets, said Meg Martin, shelter program director.

“Expecting sobriety is setting people up to fail,” Martin said of an addict’s long-term recovery.

Organizers are working to reshape the image of their shelter, which had attracted controversy in four previous attempts to find a location under the name The People’s House.

At least 60 downtown businesses and organizations have publicly supported the shelter as a crucial tool for getting the homeless off the streets and into treatment, according to a list from Interfaith Works.

On the other hand, some neighbors and business owners said the shelter would attract sex offenders, drug addicts and bad behavior. The group Concerned Eastside Neighbors formed in 2013 specifically to oppose the shelter during a previous hunt for a site.

Despite the new location outside her Eastside neighborhood, resident Jessica Archer still says the shelter — and its lack of sobriety requirements — is a bad idea that caters to people with drug habits and criminal records.

“It’s the wrong model,” Archer said. “I think it encourages them to hang out in Olympia.”

The project has been renamed the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter. The shelter’s previous label of “low barrier” will no longer be used, Martin said, noting the more accurate description is to “provide maximum access to basic needs.”

The new shelter deserves a chance, said Nathan Reilly, owner of Darby’s restaurant and Three Magnets Brewing. It’s an alternative to people sleeping and defecating in business alcoves or alleys, or causing more problems, he said.

“A not-in-my-backyard response by downtown businesses would push a potential positive solution outside of the area where it stands a chance of being successful,” said Reilly, adding that he didn’t want to see another winter with more homeless people sleeping on the streets.

“These individuals have chosen downtown Olympia as their home and are going to be here either way,” he said.

That might be the case, but opponents say a downtown shelter only attracts more loitering in the vicinity. One business owner previously told The Olympian he fears retaliation, such as vandalism or broken windows, for speaking against the shelter.

“I believe in reaching out and helping,” said Tom Dorian of Don’s Camera on Capitol Way, “but there has to be some boundaries.”

In addition to the shelters, several South Sound groups regularly serve them food.

Crazy Faith Outreach hosts hot dog meals on Thursday and Saturday at a parking lot at State Avenue and Washington Street. CityGates Ministries offers food, clothing, hygiene items and more Thursday evenings at State and Adams Street.

The PB&J Project is an informal group that hands out sandwiches at lunchtime three days a week at the artesian well. Anyone can get a sandwich, regardless of their circumstances, said Charlie Kruger, project co-organizer.

As an example, he cited a guy who drove up in a BMW, grabbed two sandwiches and left.

“You never know someone’s whole story,” Kruger said.

The PB&J Project began in early 2013 as a way to bring humanity — and lessen the stress — in the lives of the homeless.

“It comes back to humanizing people,” said Kruger, a seasoned outreach worker on Olympia’s streets. “When you feel human, you don’t act desperately.”

The project depends on donations to pay for sandwiches crafted by Olympia native Layla McCann. For each meal, she makes about 20 sandwiches using organic bread and peanut butter with real strawberry preserves.

McCann, 42, empathizes with those who spend their lives on the streets. About 11 years ago, she was homeless in Olympia. It took two years and a major life event to turn things around.

“I had a child,” she said, “and got my crap together.”

BEYOND A ROOF

Sheltering the homeless involves more than just a roof.

The SideWalk Program, for example, connects the homeless with housing, case management and short-term rental assistance. The placement agency has partnered with several groups, including Interfaith Works and Quixote Village, to find housing for clients.

Last year, SideWalk found housing for 128 homeless people, along with 42 more people fresh out of jail or drug treatment. The average cost to house each person is $1,200 in total rental assistance, according to SideWalk.

Community Youth Services focuses on downtown “street kids,” and provides shelter that gets at-risk youths off the streets while connecting them with housing and jobs, said CEO Charles Shelan.

Stonewall Youth Olympia assists lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths with shelter.

The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates 40 percent of homeless youths served by agencies identify as LGBT. They commonly attribute their homelessness to family conflict, according to the coalition, and face a higher risk for mental health problems or sexual victimization.

The Crisis Clinic of Thurston and Mason Counties provides a 24-hour intervention hot line that guides callers to emergency services — including shelter and mental health counseling.

A high-profile shelter example is Quixote Village.

Situated in an industrial area about four miles from downtown, Quixote Village opened on Christmas Eve 2013 with 30 single-room detached cottages.

The new community attracted national media attention and has been hailed as a model for similar projects in cities such as Madison, Wisconsin, and Santa Cruz, California.

Quixote Village started as Camp Quixote in 2007, when homeless protesters pitched their tents in a downtown parking lot and wouldn’t leave. To conform with city codes, the camp shuttled to a new site every few months.

The camp had its own rules, but when the village opened, sobriety became the new requirement, leading some residents to leave or face eviction.

Eviction is a last resort for residents who have exhausted all ways to comply with rules concerning behavior and sobriety, program manager Raul Salazar said.

“It’s never a surprise,” he said, nor is it easy.

As of early October, 20 of the original 29 residents were still living at Quixote Village. One of them, Sharon Wilson, said it took a while to adjust to the new life after residents had grown accustomed to the camp’s loose rules and conditions.

Simple things — such as having a bathroom inside — were mind-blowing to residents, she said.

“Letting go of the camp mentality has been a big hurdle,” said Wilson, who lived in the camp for about nine months before the village opened. “It took a lot of work and growing pains until people got with it and settled. We couldn’t do that while certain people lived there.”

Village residents are asked to pay 30 percent of their incomes toward rent. After a year at the village, they qualify for a voucher toward a place of their own, if they choose.

Wilson, who works in the village garden and is the kitchen manager, has made her little one-room house into a home. She plans to stay at the village indefinitely, and not just because it’s affordable.

“People trust me here,” she said. “I feel really important and valuable here.”

‘MENTAL ILLNESS IS NOT ILLEGAL’

Once their housing is solved, many of the homeless then begin trying to deal with mental health and substance abuse issues — problems that often lead to homelessness in the first place.

People cycle in and out of treatment, often through relapses in substance abuse, said Heather Moore, former executive director of the Capital Recovery Center. The nonprofit also provides mental health services downtown for the homeless and opened a larger headquarters last December to expand its reach.

“Mental illness is not illegal,” she said.

Olympia’s problems with mental illness are not unusual. Nationwide, nearly one-third of chronically homeless people have a mental health condition, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Homeless people who stay in shelters temporarily, or shuttle in and out of homelessness, have lower rates of mental illness and substance abuse compared with the chronically homeless.

At the local level, the Downtown Ambassadors Program is exploring a new approach to engage the homeless in Olympia and connect them with mental health services.

The program is known for cleaning graffiti and litter, and for providing hospitality services for downtown visitors.

Program manager Rob Richards plans to train the ambassadors to become certified peer counselors. Then they could double as middlemen and connect the homeless with mental health treatment at Capital Recovery Center.

The goal is to start training the ambassadors by year’s end and bring the much-needed service to downtown’s streets, Richards said.

“Even half a mile can be a barrier for somebody who’s going through a mental health crisis,” he said. “It gives us the ability to divert people from our jail system.”

Housing can cut incarceration rates in half for homeless people with mental illness — and ultimately reduce the financial burden on the criminal justice system, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The alliance reports that inmates with mental illness are more likely to be homeless at the time of their arrest.

Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim said many mentally ill homeless people end up in jail for low-level nuisance crimes simply because police have nowhere else to take them, he said.

“Once you get mentally ill people in the criminal system, it slows everything down,” the prosecutor said, noting his concern that the jail system is heading toward crisis. “We’re not a mental health system. We should be able to focus on public safety and folks who are the real criminals.”

The number of mentally ill inmates is rising. In 2014, nearly 43 percent of the county’s jail population of 375 suffered from mental illness compared with 20 percent in 2009, said Deputy Chief Todd Thoma.

Mentally ill inmates are isolated for their own protection and require more staff resources than other prisoners, he said. They often end up coming back after their release and start the cycle all over again, Thoma said.

“We have to do a better job of diverting them from the criminal justice system and jails,” said Thoma, adding that more community mental health programs could help accomplish this goal.

A mental health facility is slated to open in late 2015 near the new county jail. People who commit a crime because of mental illness will be sent to the new facility instead of jail, said Mark Freedman, social services division director with Thurston County Public Health.

The facility is funded by $1.8 million from the state.

“We would be stabilizing more people,” Freedman said. “We’re a year away from opening the door.”

‘NOBODY WANTS TO BE OUT ON THE STREET SLEEPING’

Women represent 39 percent of Thurston County’s homeless, according to the Point-in-Time Count.

Paula Penry Archer is one of them.

The 53-year-old Olympia native has been homeless since 2012 after the breakup of her marriage. She recently stopped staying at the Salvation Army after a disagreement over her finances and the shelter’s savings program.

She said she hopes to land a job and a bed at the new Interfaith Works shelter. She’s also going back to school at South Puget Sound Community College.

But she still cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment on her disability income, and past legal troubles hurt the way she looks on paper, she said.

“I’m not embarrassed to be homeless,” Archer said. “I’m pissed to be homeless.”

The most vulnerable homeless people struggle with addiction and mental illness, she said. Accessible shelter would bring them much-needed stability and security, she said.

“Nobody wants to be out on the street sleeping. None of us,” Archer said. “We can’t get our lives together if we have no place to do it in.”

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