Two years ago, there was a roaring controversy about locating a shelter for homeless adults in downtown Olympia. A year ago, the shelter finally opened in First Christian Church at Seventh and Franklin. To the surprise of some of its opponents, nothing bad has happened; to the great relief of its guests, a great deal of good has.
For instance, there’s a woman who came to the shelter after three years of homelessness. She was a tough customer whose mental illness made her very challenging to deal with. She had been barred from many downtown businesses, and even the Community Kitchen where she went for meals asked her to eat outside because she was so disruptive. In the year before she came to the shelter, police estimate that she had cost taxpayers about $250,000 for jail time, emergency room visits, and police calls.
Now she is living peacefully in an adult family home, where she gets the care she needs for her mental illness and dementia.
Meg Martin, the shelter director, found this solution by organizing weekly meetings with police, medical personnel and social service agencies to identify and solve complex problems like hers. Together, that team has found permanent housing for 30 shelter residents, saved untold amounts of taxpayer dollars, and dramatically improved the lives of some of our community’s most vulnerable people.
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Martin and her staff are leaders in innovative practices to make shelters part of a system that truly solves problems rather than putting Band-Aids on the gaping wound of homelessness.
One innovation is screening people for vulnerability rather than taking people on a first-come, first-served basis. This means the shelter serves people who have the most severe and complex problems, including acute mental illness, addiction, physical illness or disability, and old age.
These are often people who have been turned away from conventional shelters, but also people whose constellation of problems is most likely to result in police calls, jail time, and emergency room visits, all of which increase taxpayer costs.
Admitting people without requiring sobriety is, of course, controversial. But a growing body of research shows that people with substance abuse issues are far more likely to seek and get the help they need if they are housed. The new, national mantra – used in places like Salt Lake City, which is no bastion of liberalism – is “housing first.” Using this strategy, Salt Lake City has reduced chronic homelessness by 72 percent.
Housing people is far less expensive than putting them in jail, or in the hospital. So even those with harder hearts have come to see in a growing number of cities that leaving people out in the cold is bad fiscal policy.
In the long run, we need more permanent housing in South Sound with support services for those who need them.
And in the meantime, Interfaith Works Shelter needs our support. On Saturday night, the shelter celebrates its first anniversary at an “Eye 2 Eye” fund-raising dinner at Temple Beth Hatfiloh. Supporters are encouraged to buy a ticket for themselves, and one for a shelter guest. Sharing a meal is one way to acknowledge that we’re all part of the same community, and that we are all paying to solve the problem of homelessness.