In the span of a few months in 2018, the West Coast’s homelessness crisis grew glaringly visible in Washington’s state capital of Olympia, when what had been about 30 tents downtown grew suddenly to 300.
For about a year, journalists from The Seattle Times and public radio’s KNKX have watched closely as Olympia has grappled with the crisis and tried to help people in the camps move to more stable housing — with mixed results.
One result is a joint podcast series, Outsiders, which explores Olympia’s homelessness problem as a microcosm of struggles facing communities large and small. The project examines what life is like for people who are living on the streets, what led to the explosion of tents within sight of the state Capitol, and what new solutions city leaders have tried.
On Episode 121 of The Overcast, The Seattle Times politics podcast, we talk with KNKX’s Will James and Scott Greenstone, a reporter with the Times Project Homeless, about lessons from months of in-depth reporting by themselves and colleagues.
James explains Olympia’s goal of moving people from unsanctioned tent encampments to an authorized city-run “mitigation site” which provides tents and services, with a goal of connecting people to more permanent housing.
“Starting out the hope was rather vague, but it was that Olympia could provide a model for larger cities, for other cities in general that had failed to manage homelessness successfully … that Olympia would serve as a laboratory to figure out a solution to this seemingly intractable problem,” James says.
Has it worked? “It really does depend on how you measure success,” Greenstone says. Since December 2018, about 50 people in Olympia’s approved tent camp have moved on to other forms of housing. That’s out of about 250 who live there. Those numbers are not necessarily stunning, Greenstone says, but even getting people into an authorized camp has had benefits for them and the city, reconnecting people to services and cutting down on needles and trash left downtown.
The podcast also delves into the lives of people who have been homeless in Olympia, including how they lost housing and objections from some local businesses to the city’s authorized encampment. It also looks at whether drug use is a cause of homelessness — or an effect of living on the streets, a way to numb the bad experiences that accumulate.
As Sara, one woman living in the Olympia homeless encampment, explains: “That’s what the biggest problem is, the emotional feelings that you don’t want to feel, from all of the trauma that you go through out here. People don’t realize how hard it is. They take for granted every day just going and turning on the water in the faucet. Or taking a shower, or being able to do your laundry. I’ve done my laundry in the last three years … maybe five times.
“We’re just trying to maintain some sense of normalcy here, and trying to get through the best way we know how.”
This episode was recorded at the Seattle studios of KNKX, with the aid of KNKX reporter Simone Alicea.
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