Olympia City Hall

Olympia addresses plans to reduce homelessness

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OLYMPIA –– Olympia’s five-year plan, the “One Community: Healthy, Safe and Housed” plan  was up for discussion by city planning commission members again Monday night as homelessness and poverty continues to be an issue in the greater Olympia community.

The strategy, brought before the planning commission yesterday, is a blueprint centered on three goals surrounding the issue of homelessness, including streamlining rapid response and wrap-around services, expanding affordable housing options and homelessness prevention, and increasing public health and safety.

“[There were] 20 community conversations and online surveys where we heard from over 1,200 people of diverse backgrounds,” said Homeless Response Coordinator Teal Russell. “‘The One Community: Healthy, Safe & Housed’ plan was the result of all that hard work and hours of communication.”

The most measurable facet of the plan is the city’s aim for the number of units to be implemented in the area.

“Our [goal] is to build 300 units of affordable and supportive housing over the next five years,” explained Russell.

Olympia began formulating the plan in 2019 and has since built up to working through a number of partnerships on a variety of projects.

“Not everything in this One Community plan can be implemented by the city alone,” said Russell.

A key emphasis is placed on expanding the amount of resources available to help those in need of stable housing, rather than simply attempting to rid the area of people living outside on public grounds.

“The city’s role in implementing the One Community plan is to participate in regional crisis response efforts … so that more individuals and families are quickly connected to shelter housing and services,” explained Russell. “The primary purpose of the regional housing council [is] to leverage resources and partnerships to promote access to safe and affordable housing.”

Current action highlights involve several projects that are in the process of approval or improvement, such as expanding the temporary shelters at the Plum Street Village and in faith community sites.

Another plan to implement a permanent supportive housing project at 2828 Martin Way with 60 units and 60 shelter beds is intended to come to fruition in early 2021, according to city officials. There is also emphasis placed on the Familiar Faces program, which is in the hiring process right now.

“The city is committed to tracking and measuring all the progress using the metrics shown in the plan,” said Russell. “We heard broad public support for building more housing of all types for all incomes, [and] support for actions that prevent people from falling into homelessness.”

City officials have noted the increase in the number of tents and encampments in downtown Olympia in recent years and received support from community members to address the crisis. One main response from those surveyed was that some behavior exhibited by those living on the street impacts people’s sense of safety. The city’s concrete goal for 300 units of affordable housing will help gain momentum for moving forward as it works its way deeper into the issue.

Of course, the COVID crisis adds a significant challenge due to the time, energy and resources allocated to helping the city move past this barrier in conjunction with the world at large.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic makes this a little bit more challenging and we’re having to change things as we go,” said Russell. “But we’ll adapt and learn what works. We’re finding new opportunities all the time, getting phone calls. We’re going to just continue to move forward.” 

Despite complications with the public health crisis, the city continues to place homelessness as a high priority while finding pragmatic ways to address individual projects.

“This is a flexible plan that allows us to learn and grow and adapt as a city and a larger community,” explained Russell.

As in any municipality, regional difficulties exist as well.

“Among the challenges in this area, [there is a] short supply of housing which contributes to rising costs, combined with the fact that incomes are not keeping up with the cost of living,” said Russell. “Over a third of Thurston County households are spending more than is affordable, meaning they’re spending more than 30% of their income on housing and in many households that percentage is higher.”

Besides financial questions regarding the community as a whole, the commission also addressed how the racial equitability of its diverse groups ties into the homelessness crisis.

“Local data shows that although people of color make up 18 percent of our county’s population, they make up 32 percent of the people experiencing homelessness in our community,” said Russell. “We know that we have a lot to do as a city to engage and serve marginalized populations.”

Successfully addressing the complex issue of homelessness requires ample funding, focused projects and community support. However, the questions surrounding the inequities that can cause some people to become disproportionately underserved are just as apparent as the intention to serve the broader community.

“We also need to have an honest conversation about racial equity and its correlation to poverty and homelessness,” said Russell.

For more information you can visit the “One Community: Healthy, Safe and Housed” page on the City of Olympia’s website.

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