OPINION: For What It’s Worth

Homelessness:  Let’s look at Lacey as well as Olympia


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:  

  1. Direct social intervention including a Rapid Response Team,
  2. Community Workgroup on Homelessness,
  3. participation in the Regional Housing Council and
  4. lobbying the state government to provide more resources for the local jurisdictions

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.

Differing approaches

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:

  • Lacey: “Olympia brought these problems on themselves so it’s their problem to solve.”
  • Olympia: “Olympia is carrying the burden for everyone and Lacey isn’t doing its fair share.”

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  -  pcbiglife@gmail.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. 




3 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • jimlazar

    Lacey has worked very hard to be uninviting to the homeless, just as Olympia has done quite a bit to be inviting to people who are down on their luck.

    Lacey's vigor at enforcing its parking ordinances to keep RVs off the street is one example. I'm curious if the rumors that Lacey police give homeless people a lift to downtown Olympia is true.

    This is a county, regional, statewide, and national problem, and needs to be dealt with at the State and Federal level. Leaving it to local cities and counties does not work well.

    Friday, December 31, 2021 Report this

  • AugieH


    The opinion you did not venture was about which city, Olympia or Lacey, prioritizes, values, and protects the property and quality of life of its tax-generating residents more against the tent settlements that are squalid, garbage-strewn, and unhygienic environments that promote petty property crimes by and the misery of its inhabitants. While it's not perfect, I'll vote for Lacey any day of the week. Why don't you - rhetorical question - get yourself elected back onto the Olympia City Council and do something other than volunteer smug, um, wisdom. 25 years ago is past, pretty much irrelevant history.

    Tuesday, January 4, 2022 Report this

  • jlongley

    Thanks, Pat, for beginning a discussion of the many & deep differences between Lacy & Olympia on how the neighboring cities deal w/ the homeless situation. However, *one* chat with *one* staffer and *one* Councillor in Lacey does not take the conversation very far. How about pinning down Mr. Greenstein on exactly HOW it is Lacey refuses to provide any shelters for *their* homeless population? If Lacey refuses to spend one dime on shelters does this not shove the regional homeless population directly to Olympia, seemingly the *only* local jurisdiction that *does* spend considerable funds on shelters and other mitigation services? Mr. Greenstein smugly contends, “Olympia brought these problems on themselves so it’s their problem to solve.” How can he say this with a straight face when Lacey refuses to provide ANY housing for homeless. They are clearly devolving the regional problem onto Olympia by not providing any housing for the regional homeless population, nor spending any of their share of ARPA funds. Lastly, how does not having a discernible downtown in Lacey (only one of its charming characteristics), allow them to avoid having services within city limits, such as a Food Bank, Salvation Army or Downtown Mitigation Site, as Olympia has allowed?

    The differences between how Lacey and Olympia on respective homeless policies are stark and obvious. Pat, I ask you to pursue this conversation with Lacey much further, and try to be more hardball than 'nice' next time. And, while we're at it, how about pursuing the same conversation with Tumwater, Yelm, Tenino, etc.?

    Tuesday, January 4, 2022 Report this