They still are homeless 

What I’ve learned documenting homeless life in Olympia  


For the past 15 months, I have been engaged in photographically documenting the homeless in Olympia for The JOLT and national media.  As such, I have had the opportunity to meet and talk with many unhoused people here.  

Most are friendly; some not so much.  Some use drugs often; others do not at all.  Many prefer to use facilities (Interfaith Works’s Sergio’s Place, Union Gospel Mission, Salvation Army) where they can have a meal, change their clothes and receive minimal medical care; however, there are a few who stubbornly refuse any type of help and prefer to live entirely on the streets. 

 Most of them leave messes of all descriptions and kinds behind on the streets, in the alleys, in and around the 7th Avenue Tunnel, in tiny hidden-away encampments and, of course, in The Jungle, the lawless, partly-city-owned 20-or-so acres that faces Martin Way and extends almost to Pacific Avenue in Olympia. 

Approximately 80 people live in The Jungle in Olympia. Some have been there for as long as nine years.
Approximately 80 people live in The Jungle in Olympia. Some have been there for as long as nine years.

 It is fair to say that some of these homeless individuals are the authors of their own predicaments (drug use, domestic violence,   bad decisions and bad luck situations); others are the victims of the actions of others (foster care, child/sexual abuse and mental health issues). 

Finally, as many have commented, some are just plain criminals who hide amongst the other homeless.   

Why do they come to Olympia? 

One common theme amongst many of the unhoused is that they come to Olympia because they know they can receive services and goods.  I have often wondered why the city and/or the county don’t place a limit on the number of unhoused they will help. 

Rarely am I asked for money.  More times than not, I will be asked if I have a cigarette or food.  In most instances, I am thanked for what I do provide (never cigarettes, sometimes donuts). 

 But in all cases, they remain homeless. 

An unidentified man, who gave permission for this photograph, ponders what he is going to do next after recently arriving in Olympia.
An unidentified man, who gave permission for this photograph, ponders what he is going to do next after recently arriving in Olympia.

 While I've been on the streets photographically chronicling Olympia’s unhoused, I have had time to think about the unhoused and what is – or is not - being done to help them. 

There have been well-intentioned efforts to help.  For example, Olympia’s Crisis Response Unit works hard to help the unhoused.  Another example is the professional interaction that I’ve witnessed between Olympia’s police officers and the homeless. 

 Two direct forms of help come from volunteers. Previously we’ve profiled two such efforts, including: 

  • Perry Onorio and his Downtown Nightshift work which provides hot coffee, recycled clothing and information to those on the streets in the early morning hours.  
  • Mama Dee and her Joyful Hands Ministries shows up every Saturday morning to provide breakfast for downtown’s homeless. 

 Lack of transparency and accountability 

Governmental entities could and should do a much better job of directly addressing the growing reality of the unhoused in Olympia and Thurston County.  For example, asking for information about the homeless from some Thurston County officials is a waste of time; they either prevaricate or don’t bother to return calls.  

Transparency is a myth.   

 As to the city, while some staff do a good job of returning calls and providing information, what is more concerning is that some council members seem to be interested only in what appears to be virtue signaling (the expressing of one’s social consciousness or moral opinions) about homelessness to the public.  While this makes for good press, it does nothing to directly reduce the number of people who camp on our streets and public lands or provide transparency about how the millions of local, state and federal taxpayer dollars were spent. 

Proof?  Thurston County has more homeless people today than it did a year ago.  

For example, in trying to learn more about the agreement between the Cities of Olympia and Lacey and the Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and its efforts to help the homeless at Maple Court, there appears to be a wall of silence.  This lack of transparency is disconcerting. 

Recent articles in various local media say that LIHI is not providing what it says it will provide. Don’t just take our word for it; here are several other sources: 

More such critical reporting is in other local media, such as The (Tacoma) News Tribune, that are behind paywalls.  

 As to the growing number of people I’ve been around for the past 15 months – they are still homeless.  And given what I have not seen or heard done on their behalf, I suspect they will remain homeless. 

This image of Tammy was taken at about 5 a.m. on a very cold Saturday morning in downtown Olympia.  When asked why she was not in a shelter, she said she did not want to be in a shelter but also mentioned that the police were kind to her.
This image of Tammy was taken at about 5 a.m. on a very cold Saturday morning in downtown Olympia. When asked why she was not in a shelter, she said …

Attention elected officials:

 If you're an Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater or Yelm city council member or county commissioner and would like to join me on one of my walks about the city as I photographically document our unhoused, just email me, and we’ll go from there. 

JM Simpson, of Lacey, is an Emmy-nominated documentary photographer who has served as an overseas war correspondent, college professor and Lakewood City Council member.  

 The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily those of The JOLT's staff or board of directors.  You're free to post your response below.  Otherwise, if you have something to say about a topic of interest to Thurston County residents, send it to us, and we’ll most likely publish it. See the Contribute your news button at the top of every page.    


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  • JulesJames

    Thank you Sir! Appreciate the honesty. Would more appreciate an Olympia City Council that require social service providers to collect the names, birthplaces and dates of birth of those they serve. And that database is downloaded into a central government database. Spending huge sums of taxpayer money with zero meaningful accountability has proved a complete failure helping people off the streets. Time for a different course, or different Olympia City Council.

    Friday, April 12 Report this

  • Bobwubbena

    Thank you for a well written and informative post with care respect to the homeless. Your comment about "Don't take our word for it" rings true to a huge question for our local elected officials approving the budget for the last ten years of "homeless programming". By now they should understand the problem and have tested most alternative methods of seeking a solution. What is need now is a Countywide "Homeless Program Report Card" that is updated on a monthly basis and shared with the tax paying public. What is working, what is not. The "managers and spenders" have to also be held accountable so that we don't waste more money on failed programs. Who will be funding the maintenance of both the failed approaches and the yet to be tried programs. Without this report card, no one and no city council, or the State will be held accountable.

    Friday, April 12 Report this

  • Holley

    Thank you for all you are doin, in cluding educating us all. I moved to Olympia a year ago and am just getting ready to volunteer somewhere. Where can an old retired nurse be of the most service?

    Keep these updates happening. We are paying attention.

    Holley Rauen

    Friday, April 12 Report this

  • MartyKenney

    Great piece! Thank you for sharing your findings. Its easy to loose all hope that there is a solution/people working to find solutions, I certainly have, so its nice to validate my concerns that the people in the background are basically laundering our tax dollars. I'd love to see an article documenting how much of the homelessness is caused by unaffordable housing and how we might compare the cost of services the government pays to (not) fix the problem vs if that money was spent on subsidizing existing housing so people could pay rent... ooof, Gaia bless us...

    Friday, April 12 Report this

  • MartyKenney

    I found part of my answer in another article. I love the JOLT...

    "Lenssen also referenced data from other studies and surveys. A 2020 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that a $100 increase in rent correlated to a 9% rise in the estimated homelessness rate."


    Friday, April 12 Report this

  • hptrillium

    Many homeless are being housed at Unity Commons run by Interfaith Works. Many more will be housed in the new building that is being built beside Unity Commons which is on Martin Way and Pattison. This does not solve the problem because there are many more that need housing than it can accomodate.

    Would those who are critical of how Olympia is handling the homeless crisis please put some ideas out there for what to do? It is a tough problemto solve. We need you help to solve it.What about "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"? If you were unhoused what would you want others to do?

    A major cause of homelessness is high rents and not enough affordable housing. It will continue to get worse because rents are increasing. People need help to get out of homelessness, but it is hard for that help to work when there are no affordable homes to be had. We should be subsidizing those who build affordable housing, not those who build market rate housing.

    Friday, April 12 Report this

  • MichelleM

    The cost of biohazard cleanup, loss to businesses and citizens from theft, and less customers due to safety concerns could be used to address this issue in a humane manner. The vast majority don't want to live on the streets. The housing offered at places like Maple Court, have so many rules that few adults are willing to sacrifice their freedom and live under a curfew. They aren't prisoners. They are homeless. We know affordability is an issue. Why not remove barriers? No curfews or rules other than the ones we all must abide by? No fighting, threatening others, and the like.

    It will be some time before affordable housing is available in the numbers needed. A tiny home with a bathroom gets them off the streets and indoors. No million dollar biohazard cleanups. To qualify for a tiny home all they need to do is work with a provider to address the issues that have led to homelessness and provide the services to aid them. Be it treatment for mental health, addiction treatment, job skills, or even securing employment. Some of the issues, such as housing affordability, will be an issue that can't be readily addressed. However, until affordable options are available, they are of the street, safe, and receiving services to improve their lives which in turn improves our community. Those with an income from employment, SSI, and such can contribute 10-25% of their income towards the tiny home with an automatic deduction.

    Some may say, why do they get a free house when I have to work to pay for mine. My answer is that you are already paying with your tax dollars for bio hazard cleanups, increased costs local businesses pass on due to thefts and security, ER visits, increased insurance costs, and then there are the non-monetary costs. Having to find an employee to unlock the laundry soap at the grocery store, walking around people encamped on the sidewalks, the mental health effects of seeing the effects of homelessness, and the list goes on.

    Providing a self policing tiny home community as a transition from the streets, and addressing the causes of homelessness with supportive services will cost more in the short-term but will save millions in the long-term while making our community better fue everyone.

    Or we can just keep complaining, shake our heads, feel frustrated and helpless, and continue paying fue million dollar biohazard cleanups.

    Saturday, April 13 Report this

  • ChuckCross

    MicheleM is hitting the nail on the head. To date no voice in the wilderness has touted any program across America, which reduces homelessness. For those who advocate governmental accountability, please step up with your program to reach this goal. Those working to address the homeless problem(s), the Country of Finland offers a very successful program. Homelessness needs and mental health needs both have a myriad of causes --- and to date no politician or political party has displayed the fortitude to advocate for either problem. Lip service and failed programs, with no accountability, abound. Sad.

    Saturday, April 13 Report this

  • Boatyarddog


    Did you not read the part where LIHI IS NOT PROVIDING REQUIRED INFO.

    A "homeless report card" cannot be issued with reliable le info, until this is done.

    For the most part ALL homeless need services, ie: food,medical ,and clothes.

    That is assured, these are Humans not Expenditures.

    Saturday, April 13 Report this

  • Oly1963

    JM - I've been concerned about your articles. While I knew you were "reporting" on the homeless and documenting with your pics, the tone seemed to imply that you weren't seeing the larger picture. But now I see that you do. This whole situation is a travesty! Homelessness happens for many reason, but as you noted, most of it is the result of a self-inflicted action or a lifestyle choice. Take away the choice and address the actual root cause (criminal or mental) and the numbers will reduce and lives will be saved. I especially appreciate the spot light you put on the money being spent and the complete lack of transparency - virtual signaling is popular today. It needs to stop. Someone needs to be the adult and take charge. Elected officials should sit up and take notice. We ARE watching you and We do vote. It's OUR money you are spending. And it's OUR community you are destroying. I don't blame the homeless - as you noted JM, they come here because they can and because our elected officials want them to. The sooner we clean house with our vote, the sooner our community can become the place it once was. Beautiful and safe - the gem of Puget Sound.

    Monday, April 15 Report this

  • Terrilovesanimals

    Very simply - The homeless / vagrants need to have skin in the game! Not just given to and provided for. They need to work for it! And yes, abide by the rules if they want off the streets. Most rules are to keep it safe, clean and livable for ALL.

    Tuesday, April 16 Report this

  • Mugwump

    I live near downtown and I walk the streets there almost daily; meaning I have contact with unhoused persons almost daily. Here's what I see: significant numbers, if not a majority seem to be suffering from untreated mental illness; significant numbers seem to have substance abuse issues, which may be self-medicating untreated mental illness. The crime that we see is a direct result of the hopelessness associated with these factors. It appears to me that we, as a society, have abdicated our responsibility to care for those with mental illness. Until we get serious about caring for these people, even if treatment is compulsory, we won't see any improvements for the unhoused. Giving someone a "tiny house" is great but it doesn't address the reasons why a person finds themselves in need of a tiny house in the first place.

    Wednesday, April 17 Report this

  • ShomshorFamily

    Hear, Hear! Thank you for your coverage and assessment, Mr. Simpson.

    Thursday, April 18 Report this

  • HappyOlympian

    "LIHI is not providing what it says it will provide." Unaccountable people in charge. Curious as to how and why this is allowed by those they are accountable to.

    Friday, May 3 Report this