Olympia’s Homeless Response Coordinator Resigns

Thurston County faces challenges to homeless response during the COVID-19 crisis

Scene in downtown Olympia, March 2020. Image courtesy Jacob Stapp.

In a surprise move, Colin De Forrest, the City of Olympia’s Homeless Response Coordinator resigned as of April 12, 2020. City officials say that DeForrest wanted to work closer to his family, avoiding daily commutes from Puyallup. A city representative said there will not be an immediate replacement hired.

DeForrest was brought in to oversee homeless response in Olympia based on his similar work in Tacoma. His salary was partially funded with a $300K grant from local churches, $100K for each of three years. There is at least one year left on his contract and it is not clear what will happen with the remaining funds.

Praised by coworkers as a hard worker and a great guy, he was described as being “clear-eyed” in his work. However, he does bear some responsibility for the outcome at the Mitigation Site, which had devolved into a solution this reporter could no longer advocate for. One official said, “we have to be comfortable with the risk of failure” as we learn lessons on the cutting edge of formulating new models.

Management of the site was recently turned over on April 1 to Catholic Community Services, who are promising to provide better service but at nearly three times the cost, $674K. As Olympia News has reported, Council approved this expenditure with no question or comment. The extra money is allocated mainly for staff salary to connect residents with resources.

Per the city’s press release, “CCS brings a wealth of experience in managing facilities and providing services to individuals experiencing homeless throughout western Washington. Here in Olympia they manage Drexel House. They will deploy this experience at the Mitigation Site to assist the individuals living there in connecting with the services and programs to make a positive difference in their lives.”

When I toured the site on February 8th, with QOL-Reno, we spoke with Alexander, the manager at the time, who said they needed to tear the site down and start over. Despite being a visible group of at least a dozen people, including at least two camera people, we still witnessed open drug use and dealing at the site in clear view as we interviewed Alexander. Video of our interview can be found here.

The city is continuing work on its new coordinated homeless response plan which they hope to present to the public in May. It is a holistic approach, that if executed, shows promise of healing Olympia. It includes ideas to streamline services, expand affordable housing and homelessness prevention as well as having law enforcement and public health and safety component. It has short term objectives as well as ones that will take more time. It already had ideas for economic development, which is all the more crucial now as so many Olympia institutions are under siege from the COVID-19 virus.

Just Housing hired to do camp outreach

Tye Gundel and Robert Bruce of Just Housing have been hired by the county to provide COVID-19 related outreach to the unsanctioned camp sites. This is a short term contract limited to a very specific mission, for which they have already built relationships with campers and have assembled a group of volunteers willing to assume the risk of going into the camps.

Even before getting the contract, I had confirmed with Gundel that Just Housing had been proactive working with the Thurston County Health Department to hand out literature and provide hygiene stations.

When asked if Tye Gundel would ever be considered for DeForrest’s position, one city official said, “No, no, no, no, never.” As I have reported here, Just Housing has a 500K plan ready to be submitted for funding.

Interfaith Works and 2828 Martin Way

Cary Retlin, the city’s Home Fund Manager, said there was not yet any reported instances of COVID-19 at the shelters or Mitigation Site and that they are actively screening for symptoms, as well as attempting to address substance abuse issues as a matter of health. Retlin said that workers are assessing needs, use/habits around substance abuse, medications as well as helping clients identify key support people in efforts to support sobriety.

Interfaith Works opened a temporary 24/7 shelter at 2828 Martin Way on April 6th, serving about 30 long term shelter residents who otherwise would have had to leave the shelter to the street due to social distancing restrictions. This temporary project is currently funded by the county, and is limited in time. Interfaith Works has advertised for temporary employees to cover the additional demand, many of their volunteers are elderly and have had to stand down to their their vulnerability to COVID-19.

2828 Martin Way before Interfaith Shelter opened at the site. Image courtesy Olympia Photography.

I live very close to 2828 Martin Way in the Applehill neighborhood. I can report that so far there has been zero impact on the neighborhood from the temporary shelter, which is encouraging for the success of the long-term project.

There are two upcoming meetings related to that project on April 23 and May 14. The first meeting is a neighborhood meeting and the second is for the Design Review Board. You can submit comments in writing or if you want to attend the virtual meetings, you have to preregister by April 21 by sending your email to the Lead Planner, Paula Smith at psmith@ci.olympia.wa.us, and she will send information to participate in the meetings.

A concern of the neighborhood is the formation of a Citizen Advisory Board for the project. The selection of candidates should done in a fair and transparent process with outreach to ensure a quality applicant pool. Ideally the board would have residents of the project, residents of the neighborhood, representatives of nearby businesses as well as citizens from Olympia as a whole.

I had volunteered to serve on the board, with the support of my neighbors, but I have been informed by Meg Martin, Director of IW, that I will not be invited to serve.

In an email she writes: “Increasingly over the past year or so I have seen/heard/witnessed many things from you that have led me to feel like you are not coming to the table with the same end goal in mind. When I say “end goal” what I mean is a goal in which homelessness is resolved through safe, affordable and supportive housing as well as increased access to treatment for physical and mental health related issues which in turn will decrease negative and potentially illegal behavior in our community and neighborhood to some degree. At one point I thought we were very much on the same page about that even if we had different ideas about how to get there, and to be honest I’m not sure we are anymore.”

Here is my previous public report on the project at 2828 Martin Way.

Meg Martin is wrong. I do share the same “end goal.” Martin has confirmed that she had shared this correspondence with others and they approved of it. It is very disorienting and, insulting even, to be told this by someone when they know that affordable housing is the number one issue affecting me personally. Right now my (under-market) rent exceeds my total income and I am running a GoFundMe to make up the shortfall.

This week I got notice I was not chosen in the Thurston County Housing Authority’s lottery to get on the list for Section 8 housing, the first time the list has opened up in at least five years. Here is what the letter said, “We regret to inform you that your name was not selected in any of the waiting list lotteries. Please do not contact us and ask how soon it will be until we are able to open our waiting list(s) to pre-applications again, as we will not have an answer.”

What the streets look like

During the crisis, I have taken two tours of the major sites, including the Jungle and Wheeler Street, with Linda Moniz of Love Olympia. Three weeks ago, there were 17 vehicles on Ensign Road, last week on there were 23.

We found potties and hand washing stations at several locations, but there was only one potty serving the Jungle which as at least 50 residents, as well as the campers on Ensign. At the time of our visit, there were three virtually unused potties sitting at 2828 Martin Way, which could have been of much more use set up 1/4 mile away, at the Jungle.

Poster in window of downtown business, March 2020.

Structures are increasing in size and number, especially on Deschutes Parkway. The buildings are getting more complicated as people establish territory. On Deschutes, in view of the Capital, I counted at least 29 tents/structures and 12 RVs in the one stretch, closest to the 4th Avenue Bridge. Access to the bridge is restricted to all by fencing.

Many of these are campers who moved from under the 4th Avenue Bridge when it was closed in January. The remaining campers went to a camp called New Hope Community sponsored by First Christian Church on Franklin Street. The site is very low key. Opie Taylor has reported on Facebook that he has been forced to leave the community for unspecified reasons.

We saw at least six boarded up buildings DT, which is unusual for Olympia. The Eagles’s Hall is also noticeably covered, reflecting the struggle they have had to keep their property safe.

Posters in the windows of downtown businesses, March 2020.

The most striking development was the encampment that had established at the Olympia Center, which was large, and rather developed. The city has put up a fence around the space and we saw people packing up in preparation for the city closing that camp. There was OPD presence as well as WSP.

A downtown business owner found this outside of his premises in March 2020. Image courtesy of Jacob Stapp.

Wheeler Street was its usual dystopian self including a couch by the side of the road. Pretty much every time I visit the camp there seems to be a couch and/or chairs left there. These are nice looking pieces of furniture, and it appears people are using Wheeler to avoid taking large items to the dump.

Intercity Transit suspends service, blames homeless

Another remarkable development is Intercity Transit suspending service due to abuse by the homeless and concerns for the safety of their drivers. In this post, they said workers have been shot at, and drivers are facing hostile behavior. In a moment of unusual candor, they write:

“We found that not everyone was honoring the request to limit their travel. Some were riding without a destination (which our Rider Rules do not allow in the best of times) and some were “playing” on the system running between and transferring from bus to bus and riding continuously, without a destination. The results of this behavior not only caused others to miss their essential trips, but it also placed our customers, our employees and those individuals themselves at risk. When we tried to curb that activity, we were met with increasingly aggressive and hostile behavior. We cannot tolerate that kind of behavior, nor will we subject our riders or our employees to that kind of behavior. In addition, amid this escalating situation, we had people shot at while attempting to replace a broken second-story window at the Olympia Transit Center.”

The Intercity Transit bus depot which is close to the Jungle and 2828 Martin Way. Image courtesy of PNW.

The post continues: “The status quo service delivery model wasn’t working so we needed to be creative in an attempt to better support the Governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, get people where they need to go and better ensure the safety of our riders and our employees.”

This has most certainly exacerbated by both colder than usual weather, as well as key gathering points like the library and the Community Care Center being closed with its alcove fenced in. Blame has been also placed on zero-fare, which may contribute, but as a frequent rider of the 62 I had not seen any increase in abuse of the system prior to the COVID-19 crisis.

What I have experienced

Since March 13, I have only taken one bus trip, for one stop. The front of the bus was roped off, only to be used if necessary, and all boarding was done through the back door. On my trip, it was me, and three other people who appeared to be homeless.

Seen on 62 bus on April 10.

As I walked home, two homeless men had taken over the bus shelter at Animal Services, not sleeping, but also not waiting for a bus, as they did not get on when it stopped. As I passed, I could not help but notice spit covered sidewalks in front of them.

When I stopped nearby to rest, I was approached by an intoxicated man in a sparkly purple dress, carrying a large bottle of beer who attempted to high five me. He seemed happy to be in the sun, but it was unsettling, as he was acting unpredictable.

Also in the past two weeks, I had a couple attempt to camp in my backyard, possibly drawn by the port-a-potties at 2828 Martin Way. They were discovered when my neighbor heard a man yelling “Timber!” and a crash of a tree. Their barking dog also revealed their location, in the trees 100 feet from my house.

It was a violation of my space, and it was not something I enjoy dealing with. OPD showed up quickly and was professional. I knew by calling them there was not much chance of anyone being arrested and that figured into my calculus.

Yet I was still shamed on my personal FB page over calling, told I should have handled the situation myself, by going up and introducing myself. I did not want to assume that risk, and furthermore, it is not my job.

It also deflects blame away from the couple and their agency. Why did they not knock on my door and ask permission? Why is it my responsibility to be agreeable and take care not to traumatize them as I ask them to leave? They did not show similar care to my needs.

Constant Moral Dilemmas

Having a zero tolerance for camping policy has kept the camps out of Applehill for more than a year now. It is the only method that works. Different neighbors take different approaches, but our main success comes from immediate action. Once a camp establishes, it usually attracts more campers and it is then harder to remove. And further trauma is caused when someone has built a structure and loses it. When the Jungle is closed, there will be tremendous loss.

It is a moral dilemma, where the compass points in multiple directions at once. COVID-19 is making the choices even harder, making what Councilmember Renata Rollins “informal settlements,” as inhumane as they are, a safer option than the shelters and Mitigation Site, due to the ability to distance. It is unknown whether this advantage will be lessened due to lack of hygiene options, and more difficulty isolating because of needing to make more frequent supply runs. Some camps are having meals delivered to meet this need.

Applehill formed an ad hoc network, mainly through Next Door, and we have contacts for the property owners who are affected, and we contact them when we see camping taking place. They have spent thousands of dollars on repeated cleanups. Other neighbors are willing to open dialogs with people, telling them that they cannot stay, that this is not an acceptable place to camp.

Cary Retlin and the city have also been proactive in checking on 2828 Martin Way and not allowing people to set up there and for this the neighborhood is grateful. Over the winter, there was a man living in the vestibule on the property for weeks. He kept a low profile, but left bags of trash and beer cans in his wake. He also had a walker. It is hard to witness this, and be unable to do anything to help. Retlin talked of the difficulty of having to ask him to leave.

People frequently use the vestibule to do drugs and I often find remainders of theft there, in the bushes and around the corner where the bags can be dumped out of sight. I have found mail, prescription drugs, multiple pairs of new sneakers, purses and more.

Person sleeping at 2828 Martin Way in March 2020. Image courtesy Olympia Photography.

Since we have kept the camps out of the neighborhood there has been a notable decrease in needles found on Pattison Street. Though we have a large amount of litter at a consistent level, residents have not found any needles in the past six months during monthly outings to pick up trash.

PNW went up to the camp area behind the VFW and did not find any active camping. There appeared to be two deserted sites as shown in these photos.

Debris left by campers in site behind the VFW. Images courtesy of PNW.

When reporting on the 2828 site, I found it curious the manner in which the potties were placed, far back on the property and not facing Martin Way. You can see this in the collection of photos taken by Olympia News. They were not inviting, and in fact on one visit on April 1st, a resident of the Jungle asked me if it was ok for him to use the potties. He promised to “use, not abuse” and was worried about being cited for trespassing.

Potties at back of 2828 Martin Way, facing Pattison Street, March 2020. There was no signage to indicate the potties were for public use. Image courtesy of Olympia Photography.

When I visited the site on March 27, outside of potties was a pile of clothing, empty weed packages and food scraps lying on the ground. Five feet away was an open dumpster.

Trash on ground next to dumpster, with Target Cart, 2828 Martin Way, April 2020.
Items seen in the parking lot of 2828 Martin Way in April 2020 before the temporary shelter moved in.

When I checked inside the potties, they did not appear to have been used much and in fact, due to a potty and handwashing station shortage the units were deployed elsewhere in early April.

In the ADA accessible bathroom, I found an XFINITY shopping bag with the packaging from electronics as well as three children’s backpacks that had been ransacked, their ephemera scattered on the floor. It was sad to see their lives affected, every pocket of the packs opened in a search to find every last quarter.

Children’s toys found on floor of port-a-potties at 2828 Martin Way, March 2020.
These are the backpacks that the above goods came out of, found on the floor of the port-a-potty at 2828 Martin Way in March 2020. I brought them home and posted on social media in order to try to find their owners. Some of the objects remaining in the packs told stories about their owners. While the items had no monetary value, it was clear that there were many sentimental objects in the bags.

The Real Crisis in Olympia is not Homelessness discusses the tolerance for harm at the root of the city’s homeless response.

Candace Mercer is an artist/writer/activist who has lived in Olympia since 1996. She has worked with The Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice and the Crisis Clinic of Thurston and Mason Counties. She has written for Electronic Intifada, The Alternative Press and Works in Progress. She can be reached at therealprobleminolympia@gmail.com

I am an autodidact nonpartisan freethinking board gamer from Olympia, WA. I am currently running for Olympia City Council. OlympiaFTW2021. #decencyFTW

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