Organizers of a temporary warming center in downtown Olympia have released data showing the need for a daytime haven that serves and protects the local homeless population.
Nonprofit organization Interfaith Works turned the former Alpine Experience building, 408 Olympia Ave. NE, into a warming center that was open seven days a week from Dec. 19 to March 31. During that time, an average of 193 people packed the facility each day to rest, stay safe, stay warm, stay dry, find social services, fix their bicycles, use the restrooms and socialize.
Shelter program director Meg Martin told the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on Housing Affordability last week that the warming center cost about $116,000 to operate this season. The cost breaks down to about $5 per guest per day, she said — a more affordable option for society, she said, than holding people in an emergency room or a jail.
The closure of the warming center April 1 also calls attention to the city’s lack of a 24-hour facility for the homeless. The center was intended to partially fill that void until the Providence Community Care Center — a proposed social service hub for the street population — opens its doors in late summer in downtown Olympia.
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“We have a collective responsibility to care for people with life challenges,” Martin told the ad hoc committee. “We have to invest in this issue now and get ahead of it as much as we can.”
Among other findings from this season’s warming center stats:
▪ About 83 percent of its visitors have a mental illness, 67 percent struggle with substance abuse, 65 percent have a disability — and 51 percent are dealing with all three of these issues.
▪ About 45 percent of its visitors said they sleep at local shelters, while 45 percent said they spend nights in doorways, vehicles or encampments. About 8 percent said they stay with family or friends.
▪ About 35 percent said they were originally from Thurston County, and they had lived here an average of 26 years. About 65 percent said they came from outside Thurston County, and those guests had lived here an average of seven years.
▪ The average guest at the warming center was 42 years old. At least 55 percent of guests were older than 40, and about 64 percent of all guests were men.
▪ About 69 percent said they spend all of their money in downtown Olympia.
The facility also had its challenges, including crowded conditions and a ratio of 48 guests for every staff member.
Before opening the Olympia Avenue site, Interfaith Works had hosted a warming center Nov. 1 through Dec. 18 that alternated between First Christian Church and The United Churches of Olympia. About 108 people visited per day at those locations.
The Olympia City Council recently formed an ad hoc committee to explore options for reducing homelessness and building more affordable housing. The committee will present these options to the city council for consideration. That includes the possibility of asking voters for a property tax that would generate money to build more affordable housing and provide services that keep people in that housing.
The city’s deadline is July 25 to put such a measure on the November election ballot.
At last week’s committee meeting, SideWalk program director Phil Owen said the current local shelter system is inadequate because 210 total beds are available, but 72 of those beds are considered “cold weather beds.” He also said the annual homeless census counts only about half of the actual homeless population, which is between 500 to 1,000 people at any given time.
Owen is part of a nonprofit advocacy group called the Home Fund, which is asking cities to pursue the housing-related ballot measure. If approved by voters, such a tax would generate money for programs such as SideWalk that focus on getting people into housing and keeping them there.
“Homelessness is not a static group of people,” said Owen, who urged the committee to look beyond stereotypes. “Most people experiencing homelessness don’t typically look homeless.”