After spending a lot of time looking into how Olympia is dealing with homelessness (quite a lot), and I thought I’d look at Lacey and see what they are up to. I had a nice chat with Shannon Kelly-Fong, Assistant City Manager in Lacey who outlined a number of her city’s initiatives.
There are four main focus areas of how Lacey is addressing homelessness:
As mentioned in The JOLT on December 10, the Community Workgroup on Homelessness is an effort to look at options for dealing with homelessness. In their words it will:
“Explore the experience of people facing homelessness in the community, examine current approaches, discuss issues, gauge community understanding and support for potential goals and strategies, and develop recommendations to the City Council.”
This is essentially what all communities are trying to do. They have a virtual open house where people can look at options, make comment, and follow the process. You can participate here: Community Workgroup on Homelessness
Part of Lacey’s direct services is their Community Response Unit, a part of its police department. This small group works in conjunction with their Mobile Outreach Team that started in August to help build trust and direct people into the social service network. Something that Olympia has modeled that Lacey is looking at replicating is using non-uniformed staff instead of uniformed officers for their CRU. That’s a way to calm situations and create a system of increasing levels of intervention.
To address the problem of affordable housing, Lacey now has approved plans available for Accessory Dwelling Units, or backyard cottages, to help streamline the process for people interested in building them. The city received a 2020-21 Governor’s Smart Communities Award for this program in the Smart Housing Strategies for creative Plans, Policies, Programs, and/or Actions category.
It’s interesting comparing Olympia’s and Lacey’s approaches in techniques. One choice where it’s easy to see the difference is the enforcement of parking regulations. Lacey has consistently enforced their municipal code on parking resulting in minimum RV parking on their streets. I don’t know whether either city’s staff took the question to their respective councils, but if there is a question of whether to enforce any given ordinance that should be a council, not staff, decision. Then if a law is going to be ignored the council can remove it from the municipal code.
Another area that Lacey has taken a different approach is with homeless camps on state property. After the state initially prevented them from intervening on State property, Lacey negotiated an arrangement to enter the camps and essentially manage the population. They have done clean-up, registered the population and do not allow additional campers in the camps they manage. This has been effective in limiting the growth of three camps in the city.
Conversation with Councilmember GreensteinIn talking with Lacey Councilmember Lenny Greenstein, he promoted a concept and model that is evidently being tried in Marysville, Washington. That is to refer homeless campers to available services, especially those for mental health and addiction, and if the camp residents don’t comply, they are made to move on. To be successful there have to be enough services available. This is an area in which Thurston County has a deficiency. The Marysville model addresses concerns about enabling vs. genuinely helping.
What also became reinforced when talking to CouncilmemberGreenstein is the provincial dynamic at play. It goes like this:
Both positions have some merit. Some of Lacey’s methods have resulted in a significantly reduced homeless population. That has allowed them to spend less time and money and their homeless camps are much less visible. Their programs respond to those citizens who want limits on tent camps and homeless people.
There is also a dynamic at play where a city can either enforce its municipal code on items like parking or sleeping on sidewalks or not. Olympia’s decisions to not enforce a number of their own ordinances means they indeed bear some responsibility for their homeless population.
However, Councilman Greenstein is not supportive of building and providing shelters. He is also opposed to creating a Lacey Home Fund as Olympia and its citizens have chosen to do because he sees other funds like the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) not yet allocated.
It’s important to keep in mind that Olympia has been hampered due to eviction moratoriums and having the Washington Attorney General tell them they couldn’t close a camp without having an alternative. The situation isn’t as simple as is often portrayed. Olympia has a bona fide downtown that includes social services like the Thurston County Food Bank and Salvation Army, all of which draw people in. Olympia has also chosen to provide more services to the homeless, such as the Downtown Mitigation Site, which demonstrates its desire to provide an alternative to tent camps rather than just telling people to go away. That shows a very different philosophy on how to address the problem.
Those philosophical differences are reflected in each city’s budgets. Olympia has spent considerably more than Lacey, out of proportion to their relative sizes, especially in the area of temporary housing and shelter. They have more staff assigned to intervention in the camps and on the streets. Olympia has made decisions about how to use its ARPA (COVID-19 relief) funds, allocating some of them for both housing and services; Lacey has not allocated its funds yet.
One thing for sure, these two cities have had this cat and dog dynamic for as long as I can remember (it was like that when I was on the Olympia Council 25 years ago) and it is no more accurate or useful now as it was then. Lacey has responded to this crisis with some different but laudable methods. Olympia has definitely carried a greater financial and labor burden than in proportion to its population. Blaming the homeless population or inadequate response on any one city gets us nowhere; it prevents both cities from creating mindful solutions that can be applied to everyone’s benefit, residents and unhoused alike.
Pat Cole - email@example.com - is a former member of Olympia's city council. As a private citizen, he seeks to set a positive tone and lead informed discussions about local civic issues.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The opinions expressed above are those of Pat Cole and not necessarily of The JOLT or its staff or board of directors.
Further, if you'd like to express your opinions, please write them up and send them to us, especially if you are focused on Lacey or Tumwater. If you've got questions about what would be acceptable, please call Danny Stusser on 360-357-1000 x1.
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