OLYMPIA, Wash. — In a span of about two months, the number of tents in the state capital’s downtown increased tenfold. City leaders were at a loss.
They couldn’t just sweep the camps away, because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had just ruled, in September 2018, that doing so without offering shelter was unconstitutional. But the city didn’t have enough shelter for the hundreds of homeless people living on the streets.
In Seattle, there are 10 homeless people for every 1,000 people living in traditional housing, but the per-capita rate is much higher in Olympia: 15 homeless people for every 1,000 housed.
Yet Olympia’s city budget is a tiny fraction of Seattle’s. Olympia’s problem is becoming increasingly common in small and midsize cities around Washington. While last year’s annual counts found homelessness dropping in Seattle and Tacoma, it’s continued to rise in places like Vancouver, Everett and Spokane.
So in December 2018, Olympia turned to a solution that Seattle has never tried: It opened up a parking lot on the edge of the downtown historic district, less than a mile from the state Capitol building, put a fence around it and made it legal for people to pitch their tents there.
Other cities in Washington are taking notice of Olympia’s strategy: Aberdeen has recently set up a similar site near City Hall, and the newly elected mayor of Spokane has expressed interest in it.
In Olympia, the site has been controversial, generating pushback from all sides — the business community, the nonprofit community and even housing advocates. There are questions about what problems this approach actually addresses: Is it a cosmetic fix, that pushes homeless people into one place and allows the city to keep sweeping other encampments?
And, perhaps more important, is it successful? Anywhere from 100 to 150 people live in the mitigation site at any given time, but hundreds more still live homeless outside its fenced walls, in the city and county.
“I have a lot of mixed experiences and my own opinions about the mitigation site, but absolutely it’s a unique model,” said Tye Gundel, co-founder of “housing justice” organization Just Housing Olympia. “And Olympia is one of the few places where the city has created a legal place for people to camp.”
With the site, Olympia has offered an olive branch to a section of the homeless population that tends to cause the most public consternation in major cities: the publicly, chronically homeless people who won’t take a bed in a shelter, many of whom use drugs, or have criminal records, mental-health issues or bad credit keeping them from getting housed.
In Seattle, people like this don’t have very many options — most tiny house villages and tent cities have rules around substance use, and sometimes kick people out when they’re having mental-health episodes — which is why many choose to live outside instead.
There aren’t as many rules at Olympia’s mitigation site. Drug and alcohol users are allowed as long as they use off-site. During The Seattle Times’ tour of the site, a camper who had alcohol was lightly reprimanded. This site was an experiment. Olympia opened the gates and waited to see if it would work.
A pipeline out of homelessness
The unofficial camp under Olympia’s Fourth Avenue Bridge used to have upwards of 70 tents spilling downhill toward Puget Sound. But on a recent trip, only a few tents remained, said Colin DeForrest, Olympia’s homeless response coordinator and the engineer of the mitigation site model. Even with the creation of the mitigation site, camps like this have persisted.
As DeForrest waded through heaps of discarded tires, chairs and needles, he came upon a woman with blue hair named Shay. She didn’t want her last name published because she didn’t want her family to know she lived here.
DeForrest has known Shay over a year; she and her partner used to live in the mitigation site but were kicked out because their things were piled too high.
“What do you think about going back?” DeForrest asked. “I’ll try harder this time but I’m not promising anything,” Shay said, looking scared. She has severe back spasms and mental-health issues from an auto accident years ago, she said. She agreed to try again.
DeForrest ran Tacoma’s homelessness system for years and designed a disaster-response-style tent shelter there that Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda has talked about emulating. From January 2018 to 2019, Pierce County’s annual homeless count dropped 9 percent.
When Olympia hired him in mid-2018, he saw it as a new challenge. Olympia didn’t have as many resources — the salary for his first three years comes from a $300,000 donation from a local church — but city officials were open to his ideas.
And DeForrest had an idea he wasn’t able to complete in Tacoma: a three-step pipeline out of homelessness.
People would move from the street to the mitigation site and then to a tiny house village in Olympia run by Seattle’s Low-Income Housing Institute. From there, the goal was permanent housing. And whereas most cities prioritize the people with the most disabilities and mental illnesses, DeForrest’s pipeline focuses on getting the more capable and cooperative people off the streets quickly before they fall deeper into chronic homelessness.
“Let’s identify people that are going to be here as short as possible and get them out, as fast as we can,” DeForrest said. “The ones who want to get out as quickly as possible, how can we incentivize that for them?”
That means meeting with a case worker and volunteering to help manage and clean the site. People who are aggressive or don’t keep their camping space somewhat clean are asked to leave. DeForrest estimates close to 250 people have stayed at the mitigation site in the last year, and of those, 70 left because they were kicked out or left on their own.
Success is hard to determine: Since December 2018, 23 people went directly from the mitigation site into some sort of housing, and 35 have moved into the tiny house village. From there, 12 households have moved into housing.
The tiny house village can house 40 to 50, and case management is a requirement so that residents can move quickly into housing — the final phase of DeForrest’s plan. The approach generated pushback from those who had been working with homeless people in Olympia for years.
When the mitigation site was proposed, Gundel of Just Housing Olympia advocated for several much-smaller camps of around 30 people each, rather than one with more than 100.
“What the city wanted to do was create a space where they could put as many people as possible,” Gundel said, “to be able to sweep folks from unsanctioned camps and put them somewhere versus something that actually prioritizes their well-being.”
But she also believes the mitigation site is a step in the right direction, because at least it’s a legal place for people who have no other option to live. Keylee Marineau, Thurston County’s coordinator of homelessness prevention and affordable housing, said many of the service providers were confused about what the criteria are for getting into the tiny house village.
“That was frustrating,” Marineau said. “And really confusing for some of the homeless population that were told, ‘You’re on a list for housing. Just hang in there.’ ”
Doug Heay, a construction company owner who bought a warehouse next to the mitigation site two months before it opened, said the city never informed him. He wanted to sell but says two real-estate agents have since told him the property is unsalable.
“The services should be somewhere where they allow people to make a living with their business, and allow people to go down and enjoy what the downtown has to offer,” Heay said. “And by putting that in the middle of a city, it doesn’t do those things.”
The mitigation site is within a few blocks of the Olympia Union Gospel Mission, a shelter, and the Olympia Food Bank, as well as other services and shelters. Heay filed a restraining order to stop the opening of the mitigation site.
A judge’s order paused things for about two weeks, but the site eventually continued as planned. It’s unclear yet if DeForrest’s pipeline is effective, but he has said from the beginning that housing people wasn’t his only goal: It’s also to improve downtown.
The incidents of human waste cleaned up by city employees downtown have been dropping in the last year, and the number of needles and trash picked up has been somewhat lower, on average, than typical.
“What I told council, and the city manager, and the community from day one was, ‘If your goal is to gauge whether or not this is successful off of the number of people that are getting permanently housed, it’s going to be a failure,’ ” DeForrest said. “Do I wish there were more who got housed? Of course. The goal with this site is to identify what’s working.”
A new normal?
When the mitigation site opened, DeForrest was optimistic. He believed it would only be there for a year. Back then, all of the city-issued, kelly-green tents inside the site looked sharp and orderly. Now, the tents are starting to fall apart.
As residents weather a second winter, they have added their own structures: forklift pallets, canopy tents, tarps held up with plywood. City officials are already talking about a third year of operation. Now Olympia has begun to wonder if the camps, sanctioned and unsanctioned, are here to stay, like the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression.
“I see them not so much as ‘unsanctioned encampments’ but ‘informal settlements’ or ‘informal communities,’ which is really normal in countries that have a wealth divide like ours does,” Olympia Councilmember Renata Rollins said during a contentious council meeting in September.
That night, the City Council voted to stall DeForrest’s planned cleanup of the Fourth Avenue Bridge site, where Shay and around 70 people lived at the time — a reminder that unauthorized encampments still continue, despite the mitigation site’s ongoing presence.
As winter came on, county public health workers knew there still wasn’t enough shelter or room at the mitigation site for everyone living outside. The county now has a $15,000 contract with an advocacy nonprofit to simply make sure people can survive outside in the elements — in the winter, that means handing out blankets, dry socks and hand warmers.
DeForrest recently went to visit Shay at the Fourth Avenue camp. He told her he’d return to help her move her things back into the mitigation site. Before he got in his car, he looked up the path and saw a growing camp a stone’s throw away.
“It’s very hard to not be reactive with homeless services and homeless response. You’re kind of always reacting,” DeForrest said. “In the next few months, this is going to be another cleanup right here.”