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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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