This is an essay, it has lots of facts and I’m hoping they all got down straight as they came from my own notes. I can certainly provide access to any of the entities that gave the facts if someone wants to argue. The big takeaway is I left this meeting with is an awful lot to think about as a member of my community and a merchant in the downtown core.
Last night I attended a State of Homelessness meeting held by the League of Women Voters in downtown Olympia. The large meeting room was packed, with people standing and people sitting on the floor. Many were older people, lots of gray in the room including me, but all ages were represented and paying close attention. The meeting was intended to bring all the providers and volunteers in Thurston County up to speed about what is a complex problem everywhere these days: the homeless.
The person that resonated most with me personally was a gentleman from Side Walk, a local group/organization focused on rapid rehousing and direct contact with street people. They started out life as a program of Interfaith Works and have grown since then. He spoke with gentle humor and his words were an eye opener for me, I’m one of the bystanders who generally gripes about the plethora of grubby street people downtown and I am one who has felt helpless to impact the situation.
He said that Olympia is not a “Homeless Magnet”. People don’t come here to be homeless because we have such wonderful services or for the climate. It would seem everyone feels like their city is a homeless magnet: Malibu, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Miami et al. Personally, I would think Malibu or Miami would be a better choice than soggy Seattle if I had an itchy foot and the ability to travel.
It turns out it’s not really a matter of choice. These people are from here and have remained here. Their families and their roots are here and going somewhere else is not really an option emotionally or fiscally.
In January of 2016 there was a survey conducted : I count Thurston Because I Count. I hope I got that mouthful right… At any rate, volunteers canvassed the county and its towns and counted 579 Homeless people .There were 476 last year and and 576 the year before, so that population seems pretty stable in numbers. They did complex surveys much like a census when they could and completed 342 of those which gave them some fascinating facts.
I wrote as fast as I could, and I’m hoping I got the numbers written down right. 235 of those homeless spent the night in a shelter, 192 were on the streets all night. 150 of those counted were in transition, which I take it means there was something happening with their housing situation. Of the 342, 226 were male. 7 of them were under 18, 26 were over 60. That leaves 116 female, but I could swear the speaker said 90 female. You get the picture, the most people homeless are the male demographic from 20-59.
It gets far more complex when one drills down. 205 of those completing a survey identified as having a disability. 223 had been homeless for more than 1 year. Why? Economic and job loss counted at 161, family crisis 73, kicked out or left home, 61, alcohol and drug use as a contributing cause, 48.
Here are more numbers: The folks at Interfaith Works run a shelter which is always at 100% capacity and they turn away at least 8 people a night. Interfaith shelters the most vulnerable among the homeless population. The people most likely to die on the streets. 81% of those folks have won the trifecta: they have multiple issues. Chronically homeless for over a year with physical and mental issues along with substance abuse issues. They are the most visible and the most difficult to help. This population cannot conform to social needs and falls through the cracks most quickly. Interfaith has an approach that they call call opt in, they screen people in to their shelter, not out. They are very hopeful that local jurisdictions will begin to implement this vulnerability model which gets the most desperate people help first and fast–and again and again if need be.
With a 40% decrease in federal budgets to address this issue over the last several years, more and more falls on local people and local assets and cities and counties don’t always have the funds they need to build or acquire housing or services for homeless people. The biggest need seems to be housing. Not a tent city, not a shelter, but a place of one’s own. Rapid Rehousing is a catch phrase I heard a lot last night. It costs $2500 to house someone for the night in the ER, $104 in a police station, $26 in a short term shelter and as little $4 a night to house someone in their own place.
There is a levy proposal in the works under the aegis of the Housing Task Force to provide property tax funds to build 500 units of affordable housing for families with children. That’s 24 cents per $1000 for 7 years for property owners. It would seem to me that’s a pretty painless way to help out with out having to get up and do anything to address the crisis.
The other issue with housing people is they don’t stay put without support services. I heard a word I haven’t run into as a layman: siloed services. It fits. This means medical care, psychiatric care, economic support like food stamps, and housing issues must all be accessed separately in their own silo, and each one requires a separate appointment and waiting up to 30 days for said appointment.
Okay, I’m fairly normal and the idea of having to make and keep myriad appointments to get anywhere with anything is daunting. Now, if I add in no transportation, no regular meals so I’m always hungry and low energy, or reliance on lots of bus changes and schedules, it gets worse. I’m homeless, I don’t have a phone or a calendar or maybe even a watch to know where I’m supposed to be and when. Let’s pile on a disability, whether its a mental condition, chronic substance abuse or a physical condition. I’m going to walk away and curse the system that keeps promising to help and never delivers. I’m still wet to the skin and sleeping on the street with no help in sight.
There is actually an answer to this one: it’s in the works and if you believe in prayer, or good karma, call some down for the implementation of a Community Care Center. Somehow, someway, service providers have all managed to work together for the common good and in the works is a one stop shop if they are successful. No more silo. It will have showers and laundry facilities, a nurse practitioner on site, counseling and connecting services to help people do things like get a birth certificate or a social security card. Access to figuring how to get housing and qualifying for it, I would imagine there might even be access to job training or job hunting services. Walk in and get help immediately.
And yes, housing does work to resolve a lot of homeless cases IF you have the other side of the coin, support services available, when needed and as often as needed. Rapid Rehousing assumes everyone can be successful, and you know what? The concept has a 92% success rate. The big stickers are landlords reluctant to rent those with a criminal history or no history, all bars to being able to rent. I can understand that and I think it’s something that needs more scrutiny and support so everyone gets to win.
It costs us $40,000 per year per person (if you add it all up and divide it out) to provide the services we have now which are not working. There are 1455 homeless kids attending school in Thurston county. That’s about one in every classroom. There are 2.5 million homeless kids in the USA and they are invisible, to me this is beyond shameful.
I still feel a little tentative and scared of the guys outside my business who yell at me. Seeing them piled up in their tarps with dogs and shopping carts and yelling and screaming at each other as they fight for a semi-dry space is horrible and tragic and I feel helpless. My own next step is to call the Downtown Ambassadors program and get them to introduce me to my street neighbors. Its about building trust I think at this point. Who are they? What is the story of these people? They are humans like me and until I know who they are I cannot change me and I think I’d like to.