County should take back the shelter siting process

The OlympianApril 6, 2014 

It should surprise no one that the City of Olympia will experience a public health emergency within the next few weeks. It’s been know for nearly a year that two shelters providing 30 beds for our most chronic homeless population will close by the end of April, without a temporary or permanent solution in sight.

Exhausted volunteers can no longer sustain the 12 beds at St. Michael’s Parish or the 18-bed rotating shelter for women shared among area churches. Those closures, coupled with the annual shutting down of the Salvation Army’s 29 cold-weather beds, will put an additional 59 people on the city’s streets.

The situation is acute because, despite the success of Quixote Village and Sidewalk’s rapid rehousing programs, these three shelters have recorded their highest-ever occupancy rates.

Thurston County’s HOME Consortium anticipated this crisis last August when it allocated $400,000 to Interfaith Works to operate a new 40-bed facility for the most difficult to serve homeless population.

But nine months later, metropolitan Thurston County has not found a home for a low-barrier shelter. Interfaith Works has proposed two sites for the shelter, which it calls The People’s House, and briefly considered two others, all without success.

A month ago, our editorial board proposed using the municipal model for locating essential public facilities to find the best and most appropriate site for the shelter. A task force with broad community representation would establish criteria, goals and desired outcomes, then apply those to a number of sites, and ultimately select the best one.

We believe this process can achieve broad community consensus.

The HOME Consortium should lead this effort because it controls the real estate recording fees that fund the county’s homeless and housing programs. It was unfair, we believe, for the consortium to offload such a heavy and complex responsibility on a small but competent nonprofit, and then walk away.

The consortium’s members, all elected officials, have the skills for holding public meetings, working in multijurisdictional and often politically charged environments and in moving public opinion. Interfaith Works does not.

We urge the consortium to take back responsibility for finding a site for The People’s House at its next meeting.

And since an inclusive and transparent process to find a permanent site will take time, the consortium’s first task is to quickly find The People’s House a temporary location.

The need for a shelter is clear and urgent.

Would we rather have people sleeping in doorways or in accessible shelter beds? Would we rather endure public urination and defecation, or provide a 24-hour public bathroom?

Would we rather have people who are chronically homeless occupying highly visible public spaces, such as libraries, parks and street corners, or have a day center where services and programs might help them rise above their current circumstances?

To get the downtown we all want, the choice is obvious. How to decide where to locate the shelter is more complicated, and requires strong and immediate leadership.

We urge the HOME Consortium to accept this challenge.

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