Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts discusses the former downtown warming center's impact. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com
Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts discusses the former downtown warming center's impact. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

Local

Downtown Olympia’s warming center will be missed by users — and possibly by police

By Rolf Boone

rboone@theolympian.com

September 30, 2017 9:00 AM

Downtown Olympia will not be home to a warming center this winter due to a lack of funding. But its absence will be felt by the thousands of homeless who used it last winter — as well as by police who frequently were called to the site.

The numbers, both in terms of people served and police calls, are eye-opening.

The center, a low-barrier shelter operated by the nonprofit Interfaith Works and funded by local governments, largely called the former Alpine Experience building on Olympia Avenue in downtown Olympia home from mid-December through March. It was a place where those on the streets could escape the elements and connect to social services, said Interfaith Works executive director Daniel Kadden.

The demand for its services was huge. Open seven days a week, it attracted about 200 people a day, or 23,250 sign-ins total by the time it closed in March, he said.

Kadden said the sheer number is testimony to the need for such a shelter and the trust they felt in it.

“The knowledge of and direct experience of those using the resource was unprecedented,” Kadden said.

A melting pot of users

But that many people — and the diversity of those users — created some challenges for the warming center, its neighbors, and the Olympia police. It also, however, reduced some problems for police in other parts of the city.

During the time it was open, Olympia police were called to the center or the immediate area 139 times. Those 911 calls were made over a variety of concerns, according to call logs requested by The Olympian.

Among the calls: disturbance, unwanted person, harassment, trespassing or disorderly conduct. In one call, a woman alleged that she had been raped at the center by an ex-boyfriend. Lt. Sam Costello, a police department spokesman, said the allegation eventually was cleared as unfounded.

Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts acknowledged that 139 calls is fairly high.

“That’s a decent number of calls, for sure,” said Roberts, whose 32-year career in law enforcement has taken him from Eugene and Redmond, both in Oregon, to Olympia.

But he wouldn’t say the warming center and those calls were a burden on his officers, who he said had a pretty good relationship with the warming center.

“The challenge was outside the center and on adjacent property,” he said, recalling that officers responded to complaints about disorderly behavior, disputes between individuals and trespassing calls from neighboring businesses.

Drug dealing also was alleged to have taken place outside the center. Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby cited that as one reason for her lack of support for the center.

The call log data The Olympian received does not show calls identified as “narcotics.” However, that type of concern can sometimes fall under the category of “suspicious,” and there were a few of those calls.

Costello said officers were aware of the drug dealing outside the center, and were set to deal with it. By then, though, the center had closed, he said.

A safe shelter for the ill

There also were a number of medical emergencies as people dealt with respiratory issues, pain, or seizures, Kadden said. A 59-year-old Tumwater man died at the center on Dec. 31 from natural causes, Kadden and Thurston County Coroner Gary Warnock confirmed.

The man’s death affected everyone in the center that day, Kadden recalls. The man’s family was appreciative that he had had some place to go, he said.

Roberts said it was safer for the most vulnerable to stay at the warming center than on the streets of downtown Olympia.

“I’m concerned about the vulnerability of people and I have a compassion for the people stuck in the cycle of homelessness and mental illness,” he said. “We can’t turn our back on that.”

The ripple effect

Statistics seem to show that the warming center had a calming effect on other parts of downtown.

During the period the center was open, police had significantly fewer interactions on Fourth and Fifth Avenue in downtown Olympia.

Similarly, police calls to the downtown Olympia Timberland Library — which in past winters served as an unofficial warming center — fell by 50 percent this past winter, to 29 calls compared to 60 the previous winter, according to police call data obtained by The Olympian.

“I think that’s reasonable to say they (those calls) went to the warming center,” Roberts said.

Reaching capacity

Staff levels at last winter’s warming center were not immediately available, but Kadden strongly defended proposed staffing levels of 1 staff member to 40 visitors and a budget of $215,000.

“This is not a care facility with lots of personal aides, or a classroom, which folks commonly think about in terms of staff ratios.” he said. “This ratio is one we feel is optimal for the tasks needed for a warming center.”

Kadden said the warming center was a dry run for the Providence Community Care Center, which opened this month at Franklin Street and State Avenue as a one-stop destination where the most vulnerable can get access to a variety of services as well as housing. Interfaith Works is among the community care center’s partners.

Still, Kadden said the community care center is not intended as a substitute for a warming center.

“The community needs both,” he said.

Looking to the future

If another warming center is to open in downtown, Olympia police want to be part of the conversation, Roberts said.

“We want to sit down and talk about impacts and how we can mitigate some of those things,” he said.

Kadden said a warming center accomplishes the following: It has a positive, visible impact on downtown streets and businesses; it reduces the risk of exposure for those who are already sick; it reduces public costs and the scope of emergency responses to individual situations.

“Without a warming center, those outcomes will be worse,” he said. “It cannot be known to what degree the community care center will absorb some of the impacts.”

Chief Roberts said it is hard to tell what to expect without a warming center this winter. He acknowledged that some users probably will gravitate back to the streets, but he said police will continue to work with their partners to get people to services they need.

Roberts supports the warming center and the community care center, but thinks the community also needs to create a detoxification center for those who struggle with alcohol or drugs, as well as a mobile street outreach service, which has worked successfully in Eugene.

He understands there are frustrations among downtown business owners and others who say such centers wave the flag for the region’s homeless to come to Olympia. But he said it would be a mistake to do nothing.

When he drives through Olympia on his way to work and sees people on the streets, he doesn’t view it as a police problem.

“We have a community in need,” Roberts said.

“We’re not going to arrest our way out of the problem. It’s going to take far more than law enforcement. It’s going to take the business community, the city, the county, the state and social service providers.”

Interfaith Works remains resolute.

“We have a mission,” Kadden said. “The mission is to provide services to the homeless and most vulnerable.

“We remain committed to the goal of a year-round 24/7 shelter,” he added.

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