Task force honors heroes for the homeless in Thurston County

The director of Olympia’s new downtown homeless shelter and a Thurston County commissioner were honored Monday for their efforts to serve the less fortunate.

The Thurston County Housing Task Force presented its third annual 2014 Housing and Homeless Hero Award to Meg Martin, who runs the Interfaith Works Overnight Emergency Shelter. It also acknowledged Thurston County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela for her work with the HOME Consortium, an advisory board that allocates money for homeless housing programs.

Both women were honored during a luncheon at the Olympia Women’s Club.

After more than two years of planning, the Interfaith Works shelter opened Nov. 1 in the basement at First Christian Church, 701 Franklin St. SE. The shelter started with 30 beds and has been filled to capacity every night, serving homeless people who otherwise might not find a place to stay. The goal is to expand the shelter to 42 beds, but the waiting list includes nearly 200 people.

In accepting the award, Martin recalled the challenging political landscape surrounding the opening of the shelter, which unlike other shelters does not require its clients to be sober. During a search for a suitable location downtown, the proposed shelter had attracted opposition from neighborhoods and businesses.

“We had to fight pretty hard to get this shelter open, and I hope that it changed the conversation,” Martin told the room full of fellow service workers. “I hope that it’s part of the foundation that’s going to bring more supportive housing to Olympia in the future. We know that shelter isn’t an end-all solution to homelessness.”

Danny Kadden, executive director of Interfaith Works, said Martin is part of a new wave of young leaders making an impact on the community. He praised Martin as a passionate and selfless agent for positive change who has years of experience serving the homeless.

“We have been elevated by Meg,” Kadden said at Monday’s gathering. “It’s only just the beginning.”

Representatives from the Lighthouse Trust presented Martin and the shelter with a donation for $13,000. The trust was established by Scott Busk, a local electrician and advocate for the homeless population who died in 2014, said trustee Heather Moore.

Valenzuela was acknowledged for her leadership with the HOME Consortium. Anna Schlecht, task force coordinator, praised Valenzuela for recognizing that homelessness is not just a problem in Olympia. Tumwater Mayor Pro Tem Neil McClanahan echoed those sentiments, and said Valenzuela has helped build support for the consortium among multiple jurisdictions.

“Karen is one of the people who stepped forward from the city of Tumwater, where they don’t have a visible homeless issue,” Schlecht said. “That’s the kind of leadership that’s essential.”

Valenzuela said she was humbled by the award.

“We are getting better and better about knitting together this very tight web and response system to homelessness in our community,” Valenzuela said, crediting service providers for their efforts. “The homeless in our community are much better off.”