Candidates for Olympia Mayor present their ideas about homelessness


Olympia’s recent survey (see sidebar) revealed what might be obvious to many residents: Homelessness is the top issue cited by respondents, with 85% saying that they are dissatisfied with housing and homelessness services.

In the August 1 primary election, Olympia voters have the opportunity to vote on which mayoral candidates will face off in the November 7 general election.

The JOLT asked the three candidates for City Council Position 1, the mayor’s seat, five questions about how they would address these issues. The candidates are Desiree Toliver, David Ross and Dontae Payne.

The instructions were as follows:  Please be as expansive and specific in answering. Ross and Payne responded; Toliver did not. Their answers are as follows:

Question 1:  Homelessness is the biggest visible problem in Olympia. How should this situation be addressed?

Ross’ Answer:  It should be addressed with a multi-pronged approach to reduce the street population and dismantle encampments, provide shelter and housing, and engage people in mental health and substance abuse treatment. 

Payne’s Answer: In my 18 months on [the Olympia City] council, we have addressed homelessness by working to provide permanent supportive and affordable housing where people have access to resources and services that will support them on their journey. Everyone should have a personal caseworker who helps them navigate the system based on their needs, whether it be employment, counseling, substance use treatment, applying for benefits, etc.

Policies that just ban encampments and panhandling do not solve this problem for our region. Those policies simply push people out, scattering them all over the region. If all municipalities take this approach, we will simply shuffle people around without solving the issue of sheltering people from the elements and ensuring their basic needs are met. The idea that people who are homeless come to Olympia because of our compassionate approach is a myth. Homeless census data routinely reveals that most of the people experiencing homelessness in our community were last housed in Thurston County. While these solutions can take more time to implement, they’re lasting solutions, and it’s the right thing to do because it respects the inherent worth and dignity of the people experiencing homelessness. Most Olympians I talk to support a compassionate approach.

Question 2:  How high on your list of priorities needed to be addressed by the City of Olympia and its council do you place the issue of homelessness?

Ross’ Answer: It is absolutely my top priority and the reason I am running. Addressing homelessness and ending encampments would empower the City of Olympia to shift a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money to economic development, tourism, sustainability, and revitalizing our historic downtown. Deconstructing and dismantling encampments would also reduce drug trafficking, overdoses, shoplifting and property crime, violence and sexual assaults, human trafficking, and environmental devastation associated with them.

Payne’s Answer: Over the past decade, it has gotten increasingly more difficult to afford housing in Olympia. There’s no debate to be had about whether housing is an essential need. Everyone needs a roof over their head. This is an issue I began to tackle on day one of my first term in office and will be a top priority for me as Mayor. We must continue building public and private partnerships to tackle the housing crisis. There is no single magic button we can push to end the crisis and get everyone housed. We need multiple types, styles, and sizes of housing, with an eye on transit-oriented density. We need housing that is affordable for the lowest income folks in our community, supportive services for those who need them, and housing projects geared toward our large senior population, who are aging out of their single-family homes and looking to age in place in an apartment or senior living facility.

 Question 3:  Some say that the downtown area has deteriorated. Do you believe this is due to the number of homeless in the area? 

Ross’ Answer: Downtown Olympia has been written off by a large segment of our community due to safety concerns. When we had the Executive Director of the Thurston County Food Bank come out and publicly plead for the leadership in Olympia to do something, it was really amazing. With food rotting on the shelves of the food bank because low-income senior citizens did not feel safe going to downtown to get basic necessities, some Olympia City Council members continued to gaslight Olympians about how everything was just fine. It is not.

Yet the people suffering the most are the people on the street who are left to fend for themselves against their addictions, their mental illnesses, or both. We need both engagement AND enforcement. Downtown Olympia should be a place where women, children, and senior citizens feel safe. It is the historic downtown for all of Thurston County. We need to make it the safe, clean, welcoming heart of our community where people want to visit, live, work, and play.

Payne’s Answer:  Downtown, Olympia is the epicenter of our region and that means we deal with many challenges that make us unique compared to our neighboring cities and towns. The presence of unhoused people, graffiti, vandalism, and those suffering from substance abuse and mental illness does certainly having an impact on the perceptions of downtown. Their presence impacts people’s sense of safety and pride in our community. 

However, that doesn’t mean that all our problems are caused by people who are homeless. That’s why in each of these areas, we’ve seen progress despite the disruption of the pandemic and protests in 2020. All cities with downtowns have challenges that local governments work hard to address with limited budgets and resources. The reality is that despite our challenges, Downtown Olympia remains a safe place to live, work, visit, and do business.

Question 4:  What specific programs would you change or enact?

Ross’ Answer

  1.  We need a variety of shelter options to give people that option as we dismantle and deconstruct encampments. Olympia has been doing better on transitional, subsidized, and permanent supportive housing, but we need to remove the option of living in our public spaces.
  2. Embedded social workers with police doing outreach to encampments and car campers that not only gives referrals and support, but also gives deadlines. This is a methodical and proven engagement and enforcement process, not whack-a-mole sweeps, and it is severely lacking in Olympia.
  3. Panhandling reduction program that discourages giving directly to panhandlers and encourages donating to service providers.
  4. Sponsored day labor program that provides stepping stones to those on the street who are ready to move forward.

Payne’s Answer:  As a council member, I supported an interlocal agreement between the City of Olympia and the State of Washington to address encampments on state property and local rights of way.

I will continue to support proposals for more permanent supportive housing and affordable housing development, such as the South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity Project, which will develop around 110 units of affordable housing on Boulevard Road for seniors and those with low incomes. This will include opportunities for homeownership through a residential land trust model.

I also supported the adoption of a vacant property registry to hold property owners accountable for upkeep.

Moving forward, I will support the implementation of a Crisis Response Unit Walking Patrol and the Olympia Fire Department (OFD) CARES proposal as non-law enforcement strategies to respond to mental health crises and emergencies. I will also support a proposal for a Downtown Improvement District, which will provide beautification and hospitality services and assists small businesses to help create a cleaner and safer downtown that is economically vibrant.

Question 5:  Do you plan on updating the citizens and businesses of Olympia on your efforts to address the problem of homelessness?

Ross’ Answer:  Absolutely. I would like to educate the citizens and businesses of Olympia about homelessness, addiction, and mental health challenges via media that explains the nature of the problems, obstacles, and opportunities for them to get involved. This is a key missing piece in Olympia. Most citizens and businesses want to help if they see that it will make a real difference. We have basically just encouraged people to donate sleeping bags and tents, without really showing them a way to make a profound impact on homelessness. That needs to change.

Payne’s Answer:  Absolutely. Communication from the City is something we’ve heard much concern about from community members. The City Council has directed city staff to improve our external communications in general. In recent years, the City Council approved additional staff for the communications team to enhance our ability to communicate with residents across the city. These efforts consist of improvements to the streaming of city business meetings, social media and web design, direct mail, and improving access to information held by the city. Moving forward, I intend to direct city staff to maintain our Downtown Ambassador program to assist with our business outreach and communication efforts as well. These plans will help the City of Olympia do a better job of communicating what we’re doing, why, how, and when, especially on the issue of homelessness.

JM Simpson - jm@theJOLTnews.com - is a veteran photojournalist who lives in Lacey. 


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  • Yeti1981

    "The idea that people who are homeless come to Olympia because of our compassionate approach is a myth. Homeless census data routinely reveals that most of the people experiencing homelessness in our community were last housed in Thurston County." - There's a serious disconnect with this statement and literally every story in the series about homelessness on this site. Every story so far about homeless individuals and their situation that this paper has produced mentions that they came from somewhere else. It's difficult to trust the "data" when real-life stories of real-life people contradict that data at every turn.

    Tuesday, July 25, 2023 Report this

  • JW

    Yeti has it right. The way they collect the census is that if you've been here for 6 months as a transient (it might be 9 months or somewhere in between---it wasn't a long time) then you are considered a "local". So bus yourself in, do your short time, and magically you're a local Thurston county person in need.

    Tuesday, July 25, 2023 Report this

  • Larry Dzieza

    I wish to inform Mr. Payne that his statement, “The idea that people who are homeless come to Olympia because of our compassionate approach is a myth. Homeless census data routinely reveals that most of the people experiencing homelessness in our community were last housed in Thurston County” does not comport with facts and logic.

    I offer evidence from the Thurston County 2019 Point in Time Homeless Census Report which represents the most recent data about where the homeless come from.

    In the section presenting information about the “Last Known Address”, the Thurston PITI shows 50% came from outside of Thurston County. The report then goes on to state,

    “This data suggests that limited choices for services in rural areas can drive homeless people into areas with more available help in a concentrated area. In a dynamic repeated across the country, homeless people from small towns and rural areas are forced to migrate to areas with higher concentrations of services, shelter and transitional housing.”

    That finding was also consistent with the 2018 PITI Survey.

    I also offer a recent Seattle Times article on the same topic, “Where do county’s homeless residents come from?” from July 6, 2023. They present a chart showing comparisons among major homeless population centers and tellingly, they include Olympia. And more tellingly, it shows that Olympia had a higher proportion of homeless who lived out of state or out of county than Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/homeless/where-are-king-countys-homeless-residents-from/

    Yes, it is logical that people with needs will go to where they are more likely to get those needs met and be more welcomed.

    I hope this information helps inform Mr. Payne about what is and what is not a myth.

    Disturbingly, what does it say when that question is no longer asked (or at least reported) in the surveys? I suppose if one wants to persist in believing in their own myths one might wish to stop asking for inconvenient facts.

    Policy making should endeavor to be based on the best avalaible facts, no matter how inconvenient they may be.

    Tuesday, July 25, 2023 Report this

  • Scndbseman27

    Payne is such a gaslighter. We all know that at least 50% of the transients are from out of town or out of State. His comment "The reality is that despite our challenges, Downtown Olympia remains a safe place to live, work, visit, and do business." has he read the latest survey that shows Olympians don't feel safe in downtown Olympia.

    Tuesday, July 25, 2023 Report this

  • FrostedFlake

    Olympia, and Lacey, should talk to Seattle about what they are doing with the presidents homlessness initiative. The entire metroplex should get on the presidents program. It's a big job, and many hands make for light work.

    Tuesday, July 25, 2023 Report this

  • AugieH

    Local and state governments within the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit Court have the rules for addressing the homeless issue pretty much set by that Court's decisions in Martin v Boise (2018) and Johnson v Grant's Pass (2022). Interestingly enough, I never hear state or city politicos even mention these FEDERAL guidelines (that funnel action down certain paths), such mentions not necessarily to make excuses for perceived inaction but to better explain what is or is not possible.

    I don't necessarily agree with the Ninth Circuit's rulings, but they're what set the pace at the moment until such time as SCOTUS hears an appeal or must mediate between the Ninth's rulings and those of another Circuit Court that rules in the opposite.

    Wednesday, July 26, 2023 Report this

  • darsrene

    Payne is unbelievable. Do our local politicians wear blinders when going out and about? Apparently I missed a great candidate forum at Remnant Church where Payne allegedly (and falsely) declared Olympia has no violent crime. Tell that to all the victims of violent crimes. Pit Stop was robbed at gun point Saturday. A Safeway was robbed under threat of being tased by the robber. Martin and College were under heavy police presence just today for God knows what this time. Bodies found weekly throughout the county, if not daily, most within City Of Olympias borders. Turn your scanners on folks, have a listen. Vote for Ross!

    Tuesday, August 1, 2023 Report this