Housing crisis

Olympia hopes to address homelessness as a housing crisis

This winter, after the city of Olympia carried out homeless encampment sweeps following increased pressure from the community, around 76 households were accommodated in hotels to wait out the cold.

Now only seven households remain in the hotel stay program supported by Olympia Mutual Aid Partners. Although there has been success in involving some homeless residents in programs or shelters, the majority of people who have given up their belongings for a warm bed are back on the streets with little or no connection to social workers.

City, Thurston County and OlyMAP officials point to a confluence of reasons why so many people have fallen through the cracks. The main culprit? Bad planning. And now they’re pushing for a more collaborative effort to address homelessness as a housing crisis.

The original plan of the hotel

The city’s original idea to move homeless residents to hotels in Lacey and Olympia was for them to stay only two weeks. But with the move taking place in mid-December, the weather continued to deteriorate and it made no sense to put people back on the streets, Deputy City Manager Keith Stahley said. Those two weeks quickly turned into two months.

Dozens of households were first moved to the La Quinta Inn and Super 8 Motel in Lacey. All residents were quickly moved to Super 8 following growing concerns from nearby Northwest Christian Academy.

At the same time, homeless residents were living at the Olympia Inn on Capitol Way South, funded by a community group’s gofundme before it ran out of money and was picked up by the county.

At this point, the city was running out of resources to continue housing people in hotels, and the Thurston County Homeless Response Team stepped in with an additional Department Emergency Solutions Grant. of state commerce.

“We decided to use funds to extend hotel stays to allow people to move into some kind of housing and not go back to the streets, said Keylee Marineau of the Office of Housing and county homelessness prevention.

Marineau said that despite the extra funds, the money ran out about a month later. She said the county hopes it will be able to gradually move people from hotels to more permanent housing solutions as accommodation spaces become available, but the large number of people in hotels made it impossible to to follow.

In mid-February, Olympia Mutual Aid Partners took over the transition process for the county to help more homeless residents get matched with case managers and find housing.

Stahley said city and county staff were understaffed and struggling to keep up with workloads, hotel staffing and even feeding people.

“We didn’t anticipate the level of complexity associated with it,” Stahley said. “When you pick up people and move them from a place like Deschutes Parkway where there was a lot of conflict, unaddressed mental health issues and drug use, we picked them up and put them in the hotel.”

Stahley said the city needs to rely heavily on OlyMAP as well as other outreach programs the city has partnered with to keep things as organized as possible. He said the Mobile Outreach Team and the Lacey City Police Department have also been instrumental in helping people access certain services at hotels.

“It was a community effort to say the least, and one that was very responsive and sensitive to the realities of the situation,” Stahley said.

A collaborative approach

Kim Kondrat, Olympia’s Homeless Response Coordinator, said she is developing a procedure that helps track and consolidate members of the homeless community to better ensure that they achieve permanent, supportive housing. But it also depends on the availability of sufficient shelter space.

“You need basic shelter,” Kondrat said. “Everyone, no matter what they’re going through, deserves basic shelter, so they can protect themselves from the elements, where they can try to feel safe.”

Kondrat, who comes from a homeless service provider background, said she knows the best thing to give homeless people is stability. She said it’s difficult to make the transition from life on the streets to supportive housing, and it can take at least a year, even with intensive case management.

Kondrat thinks a step in the right direction is to centralize and give homeless community members somewhere to go, so it’s easier to stick to case management and track people’s progress. . But with that comes a balance of complaints and concerns from neighbors if conflicts arise between residents.

“There’s definitely a tension between trying to be compassionate and trauma-informed and also trying to minimize the impact on the community,” Deputy City Manager Stahley said.

Stahley said the city’s homeless response plan was adopted in February 2020 as the “One Community Plan.” He said that as part of this plan, the city has chosen to take a “balanced approach to homelessness”, working closely with homeless people, sometimes through case management and peer mentoring, followed by occasional sweeps in response to community concerns.

A tendency to scans

Robert Bruce and Tye Gundel of Olympia Mutual Aid Partners said they and other nonprofit groups continue to work as closely as possible with homeless residents as they transition to hotels and exit . But they said the sweeps of the Wheeler, Ensign and Deschutes encampments appeared unplanned and harmful.

Bruce said the nonprofit has been piloting its Thurston County Dispersed Sites Project since June, focusing on meeting homeless residents where they are rather than having them seek services.

But that model is at odds with a political reality, he said — that the camps are temporary and can be swept away if community members exert enough pressure on the city.

As Stahley said, the move is reactionary to the city, a Bruce said it could be avoided with more planning.

“It’s not as simple as putting people inside,” Bruce said. “The kind of support services that are important to provide for people, that infrastructure was not in place when they were moved to hotels.”

Bruce said he heard people who were in hotels worrying about not having enough support or not being able to connect with a case manager, despite wanting help.

“This situation is something that the city of Olympia was very aware of, when they were doing all this,” he said. “There were certainly voices from us, other community members, saying that putting people in hotels without the support that you would have in a normal shelter situation is going to cause a lot of harm and trauma.”

He said some people were quickly kicked out of hotels because staff weren’t prepared to work with people who weren’t used to living indoors.

Bruce said the city hotel stay program has advantages over moving people to another part of town to brave the cold winter weather on their own. But these benefits seem marginal compared to what could have been achieved if a little more planning had been put into it.

“I would have liked to see that money tied in with a bit more so that we could make it right to have support services associated with the hotel stay,” Bruce said. “Hotels are not cheap. But if we’re going to spend money, we should associate it with the support people need.

Bruce said claimants continue to manage cases as best they can, but so far only eight people have ended up in shelter or permanent supportive housing.

Tye Gundel said that in the future they believe people should not be moved unless there is a long-term alternative location for them.

“If we just go back to the same patterns, we’re going to see the same things happen over and over like we were,” she said.

Hope on the horizon

Stahley said he knows winter hotel stays didn’t end up housing a lot of people long-term, but they did at least give people somewhere safe and warm for a few months. He said it highlighted the need for more emergency housing, shelter spaces and permanent supportive housing.

Interfaith Works’ Unity Commons opened off Martin Way in December, making room for a 58-bed, 65-unit shelter with permanent support services above, which will hopefully be filled over the next year.

Stahley said the Family Support Center is beginning construction of an 85-unit facility west of Olympia that will be permanent, supportive housing for families and victims of domestic violence. It should be operational in early 2024.

He said the city is continuing its long-term actions by purchasing land around Thurston County to facilitate the construction of permanent supportive housing.

He said there are a few projects that are going to be used for emergency housing purposes first until the city has the money and support to build future housing. The city has just closed a property off Franz Anderson Road that will contain a small village of houses and secure parking for the next three to four years before it is turned into a housing structure.

Another example is the Quince Street Mitigation Site, which will replace the city’s current encampment near the Intercity Transit Center in Olympia. Once it has been moved and services have been expanded, the idea is to turn it into permanent supportive housing within three to five years.

However, even with all of these projects, Stahley said that’s only about half of the real need for permanent housing.

This story was originally published April 17, 2022 5:00 a.m.

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