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After one year, Olympia homeless shelter keeps its beds full and its arms open

Shelter director Meg Martin waits at the entrance to greet guests as they arrive at the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter at First Christian Church in downtown Olympia. Shelter staffer Dave Wade waits inside to register guests. The center celebrates its one-year anniversary this month.
Shelter director Meg Martin waits at the entrance to greet guests as they arrive at the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter at First Christian Church in downtown Olympia. Shelter staffer Dave Wade waits inside to register guests. The center celebrates its one-year anniversary this month. Staff photographer

Every night for the past year, downtown Olympia’s newest homeless shelter has been filled to capacity.

The Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter’s mission extends beyond its 37 beds to address basic life needs for hundreds of people on the streets.

And still, it’s not enough. Last winter, the shelter turned away an average of 10 people daily. Shelter director Meg Martin estimates that at least 150 homeless people need a bed on any given night.

However, the shelter has achieved several small victories since opening Nov. 1, 2014, in the basement of First Christian Church at Seventh and Franklin. Aside from providing a total of 13,500 bed nights, Martin said the shelter has connected 30 people with permanent housing. Many more people have been put on a path toward recovery, or at least live in more stable conditions than they had on the streets.

The shelter also keeps homeless people out of jails and emergency rooms.

“If we could put ourselves out of business,” Martin said, “that would be great.”

The shelter’s core strategy is to meet basic needs, which in turn can have a ripple effect on a client’s overall well-being. Martin said the shelter’s clients are resilient people who have overcome incredible odds. Many of them cope with personal trauma through drugs and alcohol. The shelter, which has no sobriety requirements, is the only place that will accept them.

The latter is one thing that sets the Interfaith Works shelter apart. Rather than operate on a first-come, first-serve basis, the shelter gives priority to the most vulnerable clients — those with the highest risk of dying because of health or substance abuse issues.

To determine a client’s fragility, the shelter uses a tool called a vulnerability index. So far, the shelter has assessed about 400 people with the index, Martin said. If the shelter knows a client won’t need a bed for a night, the bed will go to someone else on the list.

The most surprising part of the shelter’s first year has been the primarily older clientele, she said. The average client is 51 years old, with many clients in their 60s and 70s. Martin said almost half suffer from mental illness or substance abuse.

“What we’ve learned from this model is that it’s the right thing to do,” Martin said. “When people are given access to basic needs, it works.”

The shelter collaborates with other service agencies including SideWalk, a nonprofit program that specializes in connecting the local homeless population with housing, case management and short-term rental assistance.

Phil Owen, executive director of SideWalk, said the shelter has been instrumental in setting an example and creating a system for helping the most vulnerable homeless people first. One of those homeless people recently became the 500th client housed by SideWalk, he said.

“The difference is that we’re moving vulnerable people to housing that we wouldn’t have been able to do before,” Owen told The Olympian about the shelter’s impact. “It’s been a great partnership.”

To get started, the shelter relied on about $259,500 in funding from the Thurston County HOME Consortium and about $250,000 in private donations. Gary Aden, manager of the county’s Housing and Community Renewal program, said the shelter is meeting expectations so far.

“The most important thing is they’ve gotten some really vulnerable people off the street,” Aden told The Olympian, noting that 37 beds still isn’t enough. “We could probably use three or four times that much to really address the need.”

The shelter also has made an effort to strengthen relationships outside the social service community.

One initiative is the “Good Neighbor Policy,” an agreement that all shelter residents sign. The policy prohibits behaviors such as littering, loitering and drug use on church grounds while encouraging respectful interactions with surrounding businesses.

About the same time the shelter opened last year, Thurston First Bank also opened for business a block away at Franklin Street and Legion Way. At the time, bank president Jim Haley expressed concern over whether the shelter’s clients would cause security problems or promote drug activity in the area.

One year later, Haley said the shelter has been a quiet neighbor. Some clients have caused “distractions” outside the bank or inside the lobby, he said, but they have had no negative impact on the business itself. However, Haley makes sure that when his employees leave for the night, they walk in tandem to their vehicles.

“I still have the same concerns, and I’m watching carefully,” Haley said. “We’re just trying to be proactive.”

Another neighbor is the Olympia Timberland Library, which serves as a de facto daytime hub for the homeless population. Former library manager Donna Feddern, who now runs the Tumwater and Tenino branches, still praises the growing relationship between the shelter and library.

This week, Feddern told The Olympian that library staff loves to hear the success stories of shelter clients who find permanent housing, “even though it might mean they won’t be visiting us at the library as often.”

Because the shelter is available only at night, there is still a void for the homeless. Martin wants to see an adequate facility where the homeless can have their needs met — or simply gather — during the day.

“There’s an incredible need for a daytime place for people to be,” Martin said. “It would take the burden off downtown Olympia.”

VOLUNTEER OR DONATE

The Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter will hold its next volunteer training session from 1-4 p.m. Nov. 21 at First Christian Church, 701 Franklin St. SE. The shelter always needs donations of blankets, coats, sleeping bags, socks, personal hygiene items and more. To learn more, call 360-918-8424 or visit iwshelter.org.

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