Sunday, July 15, 2018

Olympia to Declare Homelessness a Public Health Emergency

Above: An encampment on the corner of State and Washington Streets, across from Intercity Transit, on a recent Saturday morning in downtown Olympia. On any given night in Olympia, approximately 130 people can be found sleeping in doorways and on the street within an 81 block area of downtown.

The main causes of homelessness are related to economic and family stability

By Janine Gates
Little Hollywood

The homelessness situation in Olympia has reached crisis proportions.

At its July 17 meeting, the Olympia City Council is expected to present on first and final reading an ordinance declaring homelessness as a public health emergency. 

Doing so will allow the city to move forward on financing and other efforts to tackle the issue.

The ordinance outlines how the experience of being unsheltered is traumatic and endangers public health. Individuals living out of doors are exposed to harmful weather conditions, communicable diseases such as hepatitis, tuberculosis, respiratory illnesses, malnutrition, and violence.

Medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma are exacerbated because there is no safe place to properly store medications or syringes.

When a person’s health is continually compromised by unstable conditions, health care services are rarely effective. Inpatient hospitalization or residential drug treatment and mental health care rarely have lasting impacts when the person is returned to a homeless environment.

The cities of Seattle and Tacoma, Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles have already passed similar resolutions in order to provide expedited emergency services and shelters for unsheltered individuals, families and unaccompanied youth.

Above:  From a parking lot near Intercity Transit on Saturday morning, volunteers with Joyful Hands Ministries make pancakes and other breakfast items to serve street dependent individuals and others in need in downtown Olympia.

Street feed coordinator Dee Hampton said that close to 300 people were fed. “For this time of the month, that is about average. We have seen over the last year or so such an increase in our homeless population,” she said.

“My heart is always overwhelmed by how many of our families love to give donations to help us continue feeding them even though they give a dollar or 50 cents. They give what they have because they are so thankful we are there for them each week. That is a story that I want to share…the thankfulness and love we receive back from our homeless community,” said Hampton.

Olympia, Thurston County Statistics

Anna Schlect, City of Olympia housing program manager, discussed the most recent Thurston County Point in Time homeless census data with Little Hollywood

Each January, Thurston County conducts a point-in-time count to capture the number and characteristics of people living without a home. The census began in 2006.

The 2018 Thurston County Point in Time census conducted in January identified 835 homeless persons. 

The definition of homelessness includes people living in emergency shelters, transitional housing and substandard housing.

Of that number, 320 were unsheltered individuals, living out of doors, in cars, under bridges and highway overpasses and other places not meant for human habitation. This number marks a 56 percent increase from 2017.

According to a Point in Time homelessness related survey, the top four reasons for homelessness are job loss and unemployment, eviction and loss of housing, family rejection, and domestic violence.

Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said they lived in Thurston County before becoming homeless.

Rent Increases

Not all people experiencing homelessness sleep outside. 

“Oftentimes, people blame homeless individuals as though it’s their personal failing that causes their homelessness, said Schlect. 

Looking at the data, homelessness rises and falls with the economy. It shows that homelessness rose to a high point in 2010, which was also the high point of the recession in Washington State, and that it started dropping with the recovery. But in the last couple of years, it started spiking up sharply again, in sync with rent increases.

“In a parallel study called the Assessment of Fair Housing, we did a survey of nearly 1,200 people. Of those who are renters, half said they experienced a rent increase of an average of $100 a month in the past year. So that’s a very significant pressure on low income households,” Schlect said.

Little Hollywood recently met an employed Olympia woman who is paying $925 a month for a poorly insulated, two bedroom apartment on Olympia’s westside. A stable and responsible tenant, she and her pets have enjoyed living there for five years.

Unexpectedly, her landlord recently raised the rent $575, for a total monthly rent of $1,500, starting August 1. She is unable to make that financial leap.

Reflective of the data, her story is not unique.

Next Steps

On July 18, the council’s Finance Committee will present an oral report on estimated costs and funding for the ordinance. That meeting will start at 5:30 p.m. and be held at Olympia City Hall, 601 4th Avenue East.

The ordinance would stay in effect until June 2021, at which time the city council would determine if conditions warrant keeping the public health emergency measures in place.

Little Hollywood often writes about homelessness issues, past Point in Time census events, and unsheltered, street dependent, houseless individuals. For more information, go to Little Hollywood and use the search button to type in key words.