Homelessness: We’ve made some progress … if we look for it


When I started trying to learn about the homeless camps I was under the impression that little was being done. 

My thoughts would be along the lines of “what the hell is going on, why isn’t anyone doing anything”?  I have to say that after following this issue for four months I’m proud of the efforts so many people are making to address this complex national problem on our local level.

Here are just some of the ways our municipalities and community have stepped up:

  • Contracted to build a new shelter on Martin Way.
  • Created a multi-jurisdictional workgroup to develop plans to provide more low-income housing
  • Spent millions of dollars for everything from housing to shelter to cleanup to personal services
  • Done multiple clean-ups at the homeless camps
  • Provide regular garbage service and portable toilets at some camps.
  • Developed and funded the Scattered Site plan to clean and manage three large homeless camps.
  • City and volunteer organizations go into camps to provide assistance, clean and generally be helpful.
  • Created and maintain the Downtown Homeless Mitigation site
  • Set up a vaccination site at the Deschutes Camp so the camp residents could get vaccinated.
  • Created the Crisis Response Unit (CRU) for intervening with our most troubled people on the streets without having to first involve police officers

We have been forced to be creative about how we deal with the difficult problem of homelessness.  There is no road map. Communities have been forced to react without resources or history on how to deal with the problem at the magnitude we now face. Rather than say we’re helpless to deal with a variety of problems with limited resources, we are taking steps to actually help people.

A significant and laudable achievement

A perfect example of that is the Crisis Response Unit (CRU) that we now have in Olympia.  The concept of having different levels of response for different situations is a modern idea that is starting to get some traction, but the fact that Olympia and the police department have moved forward with this progressive course is impressive.  We then use a more appropriately scaled response with people that have the training and skills for people with severe needs.   This group goes out in Olympia’s downtown every morning looking for people on the streets to get them up and moving and hopefully into treatment.  Plus, they respond to calls from 911 or their own hotline.  This is such a new and creative way to intervene that Olympia is getting calls from other cities wanting to come to see what’s happening here.  This is a significant and laudable achievement. 

“Defunding the police”

The CRU type of program is really what “defunding” the police is all about.  But that is such a poor term, has all kinds of negative connotations, and doesn’t describe at all what can be accomplished by examining how we respond to the variety of situations that now only the police respond to.  

What it actually means is to investigate and redesign our responses to crisis situations so that we have a series of options.  Then we can have a spectrum of responses that use other skilled people rather than only having police officers available.  Olympia is now setting up a system, the CRU, that addresses not only homelessness but multiple circumstances where the underlying problem is mental illness, confusion, depression, or any other situation where previously our only choice has been to send the police.   This model should be expanded, and Olympia is allocating more money to hire three more people for the CRU.  

Many years ago, when I served on the Olympia City Council, we had a major issue with the police department.  Very intense, very little trust between the council and the department.  As we moved through the crisis we held some forums with the department, officers and patrol, and it was a real education about the huge range of situations the police have to respond to, especially those that don’t deal with issues we think of as requiring traditional policing.   We wound up pursuing what was then called Community Policing, trying to engage the police more with the community, provide more training, and finding new ways to respond so that situations didn’t escalate.   What is clearer than ever is that it’s not just a matter of training (although that is indeed needed). We need other people with social service perspectives, skills and resources to intervene as our first responders. This applies not only to the homeless but to many situations that come in over 911. 

The CRU also gives us another tool in dealing with the condition of the homeless camps.  Since we are going to have camps for the foreseeable future, we have to find a way to make them as safe, sanitary, and acceptable as possible.   So along with providing clean up and sanitation we must have a steady and regular presence in the camps as well as on the streets.  We can already see some results from our efforts.  The Deschutes camp is cleaner, West Bay Drive is looking better as are some of the other locations.   We have a long way to go, but we are at least moving, making some decisions, busting some moves.

So now we can all take a deep breath and enjoy the satisfaction of taking our community’s destiny into our own hands, and appreciate a few victories that are hard to come by but important to recognize.  That’s how we get the energy to persevere, keep on working and traveling the hard path.  There is more housing coming, more services, more creative solutions, more camp cleanup and management.   We’re in this for the long haul, we will find our way. 

Pat Cole  - pcbiglife@gmail.com - is a former member of Olympia's city council. As a private citizen, he is developing plans to assist with efforts to clean up the homeless camps in Thurston County. 


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  • DesertMedic

    Although some things might have a tangible improvement like the CRU; just because millions of dollars are spent on something that does not imply anything was done with the money. It would be interesting to see we're all of this money went and how much was actually applied two programs that effect homelessness.

    Thursday, June 3, 2021 Report this

  • Jacjacr

    You are right there has been new things put in place. However Mr. Johnson is right lets see where all the money went. There is only 1 new homeless living area being built. The one on martin way. The HEN program. Is an awesome program it got a few homeless off the street and into motel rooms. However I have a friend on that program and she had to quit the 2 jobs she had gotten or risk becoming homeless again because you cant work when on that program. Where is the solution to any part of the problem with the things that the city has put in place to solve the problem. My friend will become homeless again when the funding runs out.

    Saturday, July 10, 2021 Report this