Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Funding the Cost of Olympia Homelessness

Above: Time is running out as the City of Olympia works to address homelessness crisis options before the cold weather season approaches. The clock, along with other debris, was recently collected and placed in trash bags at the Nickerson homeless encampment off Eastside Street in Olympia.

Total 2017 amount spent for encampment cleanup expenses is nearly $103,000

By Janine Gates
Little Hollywood

“We may all need to compromise,” said Olympia city councilmember Jim Cooper, who serves as chair of the council's finance committee.

Cooper was speaking of funding options for homeless response efforts and two proposed city sanctioned encampments at a four-hour city finance committee meeting held July 31.

The committee is comprised of councilmembers Cooper, Lisa Parshley and Jessica Bateman.

As Cooper has said in the past, city funding to address the homeless crisis is a new line of business for the council, and all options need to be considered.

The city estimates that $1.4 million will be needed annually to operate two city sanctioned homeless encampments. The two locations, one on Union Avenue near Plum Street and the other on Martin Way, will assist 80 people total. 

An estimated $1.1 million total is needed for site improvements to both locations.

City staff has also proposed to direct $500,000 annually to other homeless response efforts. This amount could support other agencies that host campsites under the citys proposed emergency housing ordinance for services such as garbage service and porta-potties. 

The need for safe storage has also been identified as a critical service so people experiencing homelessness have a place to store their belongings.

At the meeting, Cooper suggested using Home Fund money, a business and operations tax that has not been adjusted since the 1950s, dipping into parks funds, and using $500,000 to $1,000,000 per year of general fund emergency reserves for no more than five years.

And while he said he doesn’t want to raise taxes, he is open to using some of the non-voted utility tax, if that tax is extended an additional three years.

“The cost to parks and other agencies from this crisis is much higher (than past years). In fact, the cost to every department to deal with this crisis is at some level part of (staff’s) job…I believe a short extension on (parks) acquisition won’t hurt our city long term but it will help us relieve pressure on our park system,” he said.

One example of these higher costs is for homeless encampment clean-ups.

According to the city community planning and development figures, the cumulative expenditures incurred by city park rangers for homeless encampment clean-up at 24 citywide locations in 2017 totaled $13,820.46.

Other clean-up efforts were contracted out for cleaning up under bridges, drop box hauling, advanced environmental hauling, resulting in a total 2017 amount spent for encampment cleanup expenses of $102,991.04.

Councilmember Bateman expressed interest in using capital funds as long as there is a clear plan that includes transitioning a temporary shelter to long-term supportive housing.

She stated that she doesn’t want to touch general fund reserves because those are for emergencies, however, the homelessness crisis is an emergency, so use of those funds in that capacity seemed appropriate.

Councilmember Parshley wants to see a defined repayment plan if reserves are used.

Parshley also sought clarification on whether she needed to recuse herself because she has a veterinary business near the proposed homeless encampment on Union Avenue. She was told by city legal counsel that she can participate in the discussion but can recuse herself when it comes time to a final vote on the issue.

In his support for using funds from the new Home Fund sales tax for permanent supportive housing, Cooper said, “I really, truly believe that conditions on the ground have changed since we asked the voters to approve the Home Fund. They were changing in that time and we couldn’t articulate it as clearly as we can today.”

“Where we’re going to get the money from is premature if we don’t know how much it’s going to cost…. What we don’t want to do is provide for a plan for homeless encampments and not achieve the objectives we set out to achieve. We want to make sure…we’re on the right track,” said Bateman.

Bateman and Parshley questioned the site review, design and engineering costs for the two sites.

Cooper suggested putting two social service providers and a one or two people who are homeless on the city’s formal design team for operations and maintenance.

Staff appeared to agree, with city manager Steve Hall saying, “Nothing has been figured out.” 

That includes how it is determined who gets to stay in the encampments, which the city is calling “The Villages.” 

Bateman urged that the standard vulnerability index be used, as it is required for federal funding and considered a “best practice.”

Cooper said he understood that, but also believes in “best or better practices,” and wants to also look at other criteria for admission.

The full council will hold another study session on funding options to address the homelessness crisis on Tuesday, August 21, 5:30 p.m., Olympia City Hall.

Emergency Reserves

Debbie Sullivan, city administrative services director, told Little Hollywood this week that the city must keep a minimum of 10 percent of its general operating revenue in reserves.

The city currently has $7.8 million in its reserves, she said.

Reserves are important to financial advisers and determine the city’s credit rating, which affects its ability and cost to borrow money. If emergency reserves are used, they must be paid back with 2.3 percent interest.

“We are very, very, cautious about using our emergency reserves. If an emergency is declared, such as in the event of an earthquake, we have to access those reserves,” Sullivan said.

Little Hollywood often writes about homelessness issues, and unsheltered, street dependent individuals. For more information about these issues, the Home Fund, and the city’s recent purchase of property for housing the homeless, go to Little Hollywood  at and use the search button to type in keywords.