Policy Statement #2 – June 11, 2019
Olympia’s voters have made it clear: they want the city to act to relieve the plight of vulnerable people and the effects of homelessness on our city.
As Mayor, I will lead a firm but compassionate effort to move people from the street into homes and transform downtown Olympia into a safe, inviting city center.
I will deliver a practical, effective strategy to guide our progress. I will engage local organizations and partners to launch a broad community-wide response. I will work to keep people in their homes, expand our housing stock, and fight to provide more drug treatment and mental health services.
I will advocate for additional housing development within our urbanized areas and for systems that create stability for people who are committed to re-engaging with the community. I will push for homelessness prevention initiatives as one of our most cost-effective tools. My vision includes policies that encourage new residential construction to make a percentage of the housing units affordable to low- and moderate-income residents, and that target expansion of property tax exemptions for low-income housing within areas identified in our comprehensive plan.
We need to open additional stabilization sites and close troublesome unsanctioned camps right away. We need to offer basic services for those who are ready to move back into the community. We need to work together as a region of people and organizations to assure that our responses are effective, coordinated, and sustainable. We must draw upon a variety of regional resources to address the issue. I recognize these needs and I will work to get the job done.
A Mayor can’t solve this crisis alone. This social calamity is affecting communities across the country. I will engage leaders from throughout Thurston County to collaborate on solutions that work for everyone through a robust and effective Thurston County 5-year Homeless Response Plan, and I will advocate for improved state-level policies and resources to mount a vigorous response.
What does homelessness look like in Olympia?
More than ever before, today’s homeless population has many faces, deeper root causes, and requires a greater and more sophisticated array of responses:
- This is a national crisis that reflects a broken economy and growing poverty.
- Most homelessness is invisible. The number of people living on the street in Downtown Olympia is a fraction of the total homeless population.
- Today’s homeless population includes many families and children.
- Thurston County public schools reported 1,706 homeless students for the 2017-18 school year.
- Depression, drugs, and mental illness play a significant role in homelessness. Statistics show the numbers are higher for women than men.
- Despite current efforts, the crisis continues to grow.
- New federal court rulings are limiting Olympia’s response.
- An effective response must be data-driven, multi-faceted, broad-based, and collaborative.
- Most Olympians want to see a compassionate response that helps reduce suffering. However, there is deep resentment toward troublesome behaviors, environmental degredation, and the loss of community pride.
The impact of crowded and unmanaged camps in downtown has been dreadful for all involved, with deplorable conditions compounded by criminal and predatory behavior. The effects on businesses, common people, vulnerable folks, and even the city’s identity is tragic. Removal of unsanctioned camps from our downtown has begun but has not yet been achieved. We must accomplish this quickly.
Olympia’s local government cannot adequately address homelessness without the united support of the community and the region. Early efforts to provide basic hygiene and stabilization are moving some people out of the woods and into community. These positive results need to be expanded through collaborative partnerships.
I am optimistic because Olympia has engaged with Thurston County and our neighboring cities to address this crisis. In Olympia, we are leading with an informed program that invites faith communities, non-profit organizations, businesses, citizens and other governments into the response. Even so, our collective response is too limited. Informed leadership is needed to navigate our next steps.
As we work on the issue, nearly 2,000 of our school children do not have an address, and the number of unmanaged encampments continues to grow.
Developing a compassionate and effective response
I advocate a mature response program that provides a range of important support services:
- Eviction Prevention – including rental assistance and case management
- Emergency Shelter – Short-term, immediate assistance for the homeless
- Transitional Housing – Housing assistance designed to transition from homelessness to independent living
- Permanent Supportive Housing – permanent housing and case management for people with persistent disabilities, mental health and/or substance abuse issues
- Childcare Services – case management, day care services, and ECEAP/Head Start
- Employment Services – connection to career counseling and resume preparation assistance, occupational and vocational training, job listings, temporary work, day-laborer opportunities, and disability and special-needs information
- Healthcare Services – including intake, assessment, respite care, and referral.
Olympia and Thurston County governmental leadership cannot turn this tide alone. We need a shared vision that has the support of the community. The place to set our course is through the Thurston County 5-year Homeless Response Plan and in Olympia’s own land use and development regulations. We must continue to draw upon the best practices of other communities and implement tested responses.
What do the numbers say?
Thurston County has seen a significant increase in the number of individuals living in poverty. 11.6% of the county’s population is living below the federal poverty level, up more than 3% since the turn of the century. The gap between the income needed for self-sufficiency in Thurston County and the federal poverty level continues to grow. In 2014, the gap was $5,629 for a one-person household. By 2017, the gap had nearly doubled, to $10,328.
In 2016, 1 million Washington households, or 37%, could not afford basic needs like housing, child care, food, health care, and transportation, according to United Way of Washington. This is because the cost of living continues to increase while wages lag behind. Thurston County’s poverty rate is projected to remain about the same as the state-wide average.
Tenant eviction rates for Thurston County have increased by 26%, based on a comparison of the last five years for which data is available (2013 -17) and the 5-year period following the 2008 housing market crash.
Thurston County public schools reported 1,706 homeless students for the 2017-18 school year.
The vacancy rate for apartments in Thurston County is low — only 2.7 percent in 2017, which is lower than King, Kitsap, and Pierce Counties. During this period vacancy rates for one- and two-bedroom apartments fell to 0.3 and 0.6 percent respectively. It is harder than ever to find housing here.
Twenty-five percent of homeless people are seriously mentally ill, and this rate more than doubles for women, with 50% to 60% of homeless women suffering mental and emotional disturbances.
Thirty-eight percent of homeless people are alcohol dependent, and 26% are dependent on other harmful chemicals.
Best practices to reduce homelessness include housing-first models, where first priority is given to placing individuals and families in permanent homes, creating stable and safe positions from which they can receive wrap-around services. This approach is less expensive than the cost of institutions that serve the complicated needs of the homeless, such as emergency shelters, mental hospitals and jails. Overall, housing-first approaches show positive outcomes. One study reports an 88 percent housing retention rate for housing-first models, compared to 47 percent using traditional programs.
What have we done so far?
In mid-2018, Thurston County and the City of Olympia declared a public health emergency related to a dramatic growth in homelessness. The state has assigned jurisdiction for homeless issues to county governments. And yet, Olympia’s voters have sent a clear message: This city must act on the plight of vulnerable people and the impact of homelessness on our city.
A 2017 public safety levy brought back the Downtown Walking Patrol and established the Crisis Response Unit, which is on-call to respond anywhere in the city to personal crises that do not require intervention by law enforcement. This service is dispatched through 911, but operates in conjunction with the existing Downtown Ambassadors and Clean Team programs.
Thurston County manages the distribution of about $6 million per year in state and federal funds to respond to homelessness, including the construction of low-income housing. In 2018, Olympia’s voters approved the creation of a Home Fund, principally for the construction of housing for clients with persistent disabilities. The first facility is expected to be available in about two years and will likely hold about 60 housing units. The Home Fund tax raises about $2.3 million per year for Olympia.
In December 2018, with more than 300 individuals camping in Downtown Olympia, the City opened a stabilization site for about 115 people, with basic hygiene services and simple tents. This facility has helped some find work or move into traditional housing. It is only a temporary measure, it has limited capacity, and it cannot stay in Downtown. While the site is serving an important function, this is not the right place for it.
In February 2019 the City opened Plum Street Village, with 30 tiny houses for 40 adults. The village provides case management to help move residents to self-sufficiency. The site contains a communal kitchen, meeting space, bathrooms, showers, and laundry. For some, the ability to move from the street into the stabilization site and then to the village has created a sequence of success. For others, the basic services of the stabilization site provided enough support to move back into employment and housing.
Unsanctioned encampments exist in many places throughout Olympia and Thurston County. US law tells us that unsanctioned camps on public property cannot be closed down if no other spaces are available. Law enforcement and other public servants are on-site, building critical relationships with residents of many of these camps. As additional capacity becomes available, these camps will be closed.
In order to create a long term, sustainable response to the homeless problem we must work together with partners, including the state, faith-based organizations, service clubs, other local governments, private business, and citizens to form a network of solutions. We must overcome the polarization this issue has created in our community, and we must develop a shared vision. These partnerships are being built and reinforced as we move forward. Our response must include the whole community and we must be clear about our objectives.
Where do we go from here?
This issue can’t be solved by flipping one big switch, or with a single sweeping change. There are no simple solutions. It takes moving a lot of different levers by varying amounts to bring about real change. It takes a deep understanding of cumulative impacts, and how our social safety net was built in the first place. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I have the wisdom and experience to manage all of these dynamics effectively and compassionately.
Upcoming actions should include:
- Coordinated eviction prevention services. No one should be evicted for unpaid rent. It costs far more to get people back into housing than to keep them in place.
- Additional stabilization sites that offer basic services for those who are ready to move back into the community.
- The prompt closure of troublesome unsanctioned camps.
- More drug treatment and mental health services.
- Policies that make a portion of new housing units affordable for low- and moderate-income residents.
- Targeted expansion of property tax exemptions for low-income housing within the growth areas identified in our comprehensive plan.
- A sustained, coordinated, and effective regional response of people and organizations.
- An outreach campaign to ensure the entire community is informed, engaged, and unified.