A small, weak response to a much larger problem

December 27, 2012 

A late-night cruise of downtown Olympia can be an eye-opener for many who otherwise have very little contact with homeless people.

Olympia City Hall and several state office buildings with large roof overhangs are attracting dozens of the homeless whose nightly goal is to stay dry and safe.

And many of the downtown campers are young people who have chosen or been forced to live on the streets due to family strife and other problems.

The homeless youth gathering at City Hall have triggered a City Council response, including a looming ban on camping on city property and new restrictions on sitting and lying on downtown sidewalks.

But the new ordinances do nothing to make a dent in the homelessness that plagues the community.

It’s wrong to assume that homelessness is just an Olympia problem. While the homeless may be more visible on the downtown city streets, the population of folks without a roof over their heads is spread all over the county in camps deep in the forests and ravines.

To truly tackle the problem of homelessness in South Sound, all jurisdictions must be fully engaged and part of the solution.

Simply careening from one crisis and one city ordinance deadline to the next does not reflect a cohesive strategy for dealing with the homeless.

The recent proliferation of young adults camping outside Olympia City Hall speaks to the complexity of the problem. Young people camping there said they were drawn to the building because it is a safe and secure setting, unlike some of the homeless encampments where anything goes and violent outbursts are commonplace.

Clearly, there are major gaps in the safety net that leave homeless youth exposed and vulnerable.

They are a significant subset of the homeless population: The latest Thurston County Homeless Census counted 724 homeless people in the county. Of the 691 who volunteered their age to the census-takers, 300 were 25 or younger, including a staggering 188 under the age of 18.

The burden to serve the homeless youth population falls chiefly on one agency: Community Youth Services. The folks at CYS do a remarkable job. They have responded to the pending restrictions on camping at City Hall and other downtown sidewalks by opening a temporary emergency shelter at Rosie’s Place. But the demand for space far outstrips the capacity at Rosie’s Place.

The key words here are “temporary” and “emergency.” Maybe the social service providers will deliver enough of a program to get the homeless youth through the winter.

By then, an analysis of the homelessness problem and possible solutions should be completed by a housing authority official hired by Thurston County.

If nothing else, the highly visible camping at City Hall has shed light on the community’s need to put more resources, funding and brain power into finding safe housing for teens and young adults adrift in South Sound.

Breaking the cycle of youth living homeless is a critical community goal. The longer teens and young adults stay on the streets, the more habituated to street living they become.

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