Who do we help? The people most likely to recover or the people who need us the most?

Downtown Olympia homeless camp cleared by the city

City of Olympia crews, police and volunteers from Just Housing were on hand for the clearing of an unsanctioned homeless camp on State Avenue and Franklin Street downtown in March.
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City of Olympia crews, police and volunteers from Just Housing were on hand for the clearing of an unsanctioned homeless camp on State Avenue and Franklin Street downtown in March.

Last Tuesday, the city of Olympia evicted somewhere between 40 and 60 people who lived in an unmanaged camp on the corner of State and Franklin. The city’s decision to clear the camp came in the wake of a modification of an earlier federal court decision that required cities to allow homeless people to camp on public property when there weren’t enough shelter beds for them. The modification says it’s OK to evict campers if the city is trying to provide shelter beds and offering assistance to the people they are evicting.

The city of Olympia certainly meets the requirement for trying: It has established a downtown camp with orderly rows of tents that is being managed by the Union Gospel Mission, and opened a transitional tiny house village. It also has helped fund the Salvation Army shelter’s expansion, and its move toward providing a day center.

But while downtown businesses and their patrons will be pleased to see the unsightly and chaotic camp closed, advocates for homeless people are divided. The camp is gone, but the people are not.

There is an important and wrenching debate about the choices the city is making about who gets into the tiny house village. The city’s policy choice is to go outside the established central intake system for housing people who are homeless, and serve the higher functioning people who are likely to enroll in job training or other services, and to make the transition into mainstream housing.

This strategy leaves behind the people with the most severe challenges – the people with various combinations of active addictions, acute and untreated mental illness, and chronic disabilities or health problems. These include the people who are most likely to cause problems on downtown streets, and the most likely to use the expensive emergency services of police, jails and emergency rooms. They are also the most likely to be victims of crime, and the most likely to die on the street.

The city’s strategy has a compelling logic: It makes sense to help people before they sink further into the despair and chaos of chronic homelessness. It makes sense to invest scarce resources in people who are the most likely to become productive, tax-paying citizens. It makes sense to house the lowest-risk people in a tiny house village that is close to sensitive neighbors. And it makes sense to choose and fund partners like the Union Gospel Mission and the Salvation Army that have broad public support.

But those policies fly in the face of established state and federal policies, which require the opposite. Over the past few years, projects funded by the state and federal government have required that the most vulnerable – that is, the people most at risk of dying on the street – be given top priority for housing. And it has generally required use of a “housing first” model. This means taking people as they are, with no requirement that they be clean and sober, or that they engage in substance abuse or mental health treatment. (There is a federal exception that allows recovery housing for vulnerable people who choose to live in a drug- and alcohol-free environment.

Housing first and vulnerability-based prioritization policy arose because in the past, nearly all housing providers chose to serve the easier-to-serve homeless people rather than those who were in the worst shape. And that left the most desperate, messed up people literally out in the cold. The logic of these federal and state policies was not only to serve the neediest first, but also to acknowledge that people with mental illnesses, including addiction, were far more likely to choose treatment when they were warm and dry and had stable housing.

The city of Olympia can deviate from these policies because it is not using any state or federal funds for its projects. City projects are financed by the Home Fund, which raises something north of $2 million per year based on a sales tax increase Olympia citizens voted for in 2018.

This choice about whether to serve the most likely to succeed or the most likely to die on the street is a policy dilemma that all of us should know about, think about, and reflect on. It highlights the economy of extreme scarcity that exists at the bottom of our economy, and its stark contrast with the concentration of wealth at the top.

It also is a choice that polarizes good people on either side of the debate, and guarantees that no matter what the city of Olympia does, some people will be furious.

This is a dilemma that all citizens should think about right now, while the state legislature is in session and working on the next state budget, and in 2020, when we choose what direction our country takes.