As homelessness continues to pose an immediate humanitarian crisis in major cities like New York and Los Angeles, the same applies in many smaller cities. Olympia, the capital of Washington State and seat of Thurston County, is one of them.
In December 2018, city officials took the step of opening a vacant lot in the downtown district and allowing people to pitch tents there. This “mitigation site” is currently home to between 100-150 people.
The initiative is part of an official three-step approach to transition people into permanent housing. The first step is to allow people to camp on the site, free from fear of eviction; people who use drugs are forbidden to use on site, but not turned away. The second step is to move people from the lot to a “tiny house village,” which has a smaller capacity of 40-50. There, people are required to work with a case manager, tasked with helping them move to permanent housing in the third phase.
Olympia’s mitigation site is under a mile from the State Capitol building. It has generated predictable pushback from businesses concerned about its effect on their sales and real estate prices, as well as from NIMBY-minded residents. But it has also been criticized by nonprofits and housing advocates, who say it’s a cosmetic step that gives the city cover to clear away smaller homeless encampments in other neighborhoods.
“The first wave of people who moved into the mitigation site were people who wanted to be there,” Tye Gundel, co-founder of Just Housing Olympia, told Filter. “But since then, the majority of folks going there are being herded there from unsanctioned camps. The city will target camps for removal while halting admissions into the mitigation site, until they have enough unfilled spots to justify closing another camp.”
“Even the tiny home village is very high-barrier for people to get into it, the pipeline is jammed.”
The program has shown some successes. Since it began, 35 people have moved from the lot into the tiny house village, and another 23 have moved directly into long-term housing. Twelve families housed in the tiny house village have subsequently also moved into permanent housing.
But while Gundel said that the mitigation site has been beneficial, she added that the city has overwhelmingly failed at getting people into permanent housing. “We don’t have permanent housing to move people into,” she said. “Even the tiny home village is very high-barrier for people to get into it, the pipeline is jammed. People who get there have to be sober, able to find employment and able to find a home in three-to-six months. If you don’t find a permanent option, you are discharged.”
“What I told council, and the city manager and the community from day one was, ‘If your goal is to gauge whether or not this is successful off of the number of people that are getting permanently housed, it’s going to be a failure,’” Colin DeForrest, who was hired by Olympia to design the three-step program, told the Seattle Times. “Do I wish there were more who got housed? Of course. The goal with this site is to identify what’s working.”
The lot was initially only supposed to be open for one year. But the city is now considering keeping it open for its third year.
Hundreds of homeless people still live on the streets of Olympia and Thurston County, and the numbers are growing. A 2019 county survey found 800 homeless individuals, with significant increases in the numbers of people going unsheltered, experiencing homelessness for more than a year or being chronically homeless with a disability. Nearly 40 percent of people in the county’s jails, the survey found, will become homeless after their release. The county recently contracted a local nonprofit at a cost of $15,000 to furnish basic supplies like blankets and hand warmers to help people survive the winter.
Gundel blames broader economic and public health factors for Olympia’s homelessness crisis. The downtown area has gentrified in the past several years, with new housing units and rentals becoming increasingly unaffordable. The city offers no rental assistance and Washington law has poor protections for renters or rent controls. Disparities in primary healthcare, mental healthcare and substance use treatment compound the issue.
Statewide, many more small cities and counties are struggling with similar crises. Federal data released last month showed that overall homelessness dropped by 3 percent in Washington—the first decline in nine years. However, this was primarily due to drops in larger cities like Seattle and Tacoma; cities like Spokane, Vancouver and Everett saw large increases.
Governor Jay Inslee discussed homelessness in his State of the State address last month, highlighting a $300 million plan to shelter half of the homeless population by the end of this year and expand housing programs over the next three years.
Meanwhile, legislation recently introduced in the state legislature, House Bill 2649, would require certain jurisdictions to create a homeless housing plan and increase shelter capacities. This would apply to all cities with populations over 15,000 or counties with over 40,000 people.
Another proposal, House Bill 2658 submitted by Rep. Drew Stokesbary, takes a different approach. It authorizes cities to increase local sales taxes. Additional revenue would be matched dollar-for-dollar by the state, and that money would go towards housing solutions. Cities would have to be transparent about how the money is used, and every four years voters would need to re-authorize the tax. But paradoxically, Stokesbary’s bill also requires that cities taking this path agree to ban both safe consumption sites (SCS) and homeless encampments near schools and other public facilities.
Filter has reported on research that showed how a single SCS site in Seattle would save over four dollars for every dollar invested. Such a site is “projected to annually reverse 167 overdoses and prevent 6 overdose deaths, 45 hospitalizations, 90 emergency department visits, and 92 emergency medical service deployments,” the study read.
Filter has also reported on crackdowns on homeless encampments in Philadelphia, and how such actions exacerbate problems.
The verdict on Olympia’s approach to its homelessness crisis remains mixed. The mitigation site has helped some people to leave locations where they may be targeted by police and others, and helped a small number into long-term housing. But the level of mitigation it provides is nowhere near to being the solution that many hundreds of people need.
Image of the mitigation site from the City of Olympia.