Thurston County's Hidden Sector

My glimpses into homelessness


Last week, the Washington State Legislature opened, and Governor Inslee began the session with his State of the State address. He mentioned homelessness by stating; “We must take action this day to fight the homelessness crisis; to reverse social and economic disparities; to educate our children and serve those in foster care; to fund our transportation system; and to protect our salmon and orca.”

(Woo hoo! Most of those areas are covered by the mission of nonprofits that this column celebrates).

The Governor’s proposal for the homelessness crisis includes”$815 million for services such as safe housing for people experiencing homelessness, behavioral health, and increasing the affordable housing supply.” In addressing poverty, he said his “budget would create a $125 million reinvestment fund that would address social and economic disparities.”

What do I know? – Not a lot.

Growing up in a middle-class household, I did not have a lot of experience with homelessness, so admittedly I was ignorant about the special issues and challenges that homeless individuals may face. However, as I continued my career in nonprofits, I started to learn a few things that I want to share here.

One year, I participated in an education/fundraising event for a local shelter. When I walked into the gymnasium, I was presented with a scenario that I was supposed to act out. It was that I was a single parent who had recently fled domestic violence and I needed to open a bank account in my name. There were tables located throughout the gymnasium with signs indicating their services. I started to walk over to the “bank” (thinking this task was easy) I was stopped along the way and reminded that I had to ask for time off from work before going to the bank. When I approached my “employer,” not only was I denied the time off, but I was fired for asking.

I won’t go into all the hurdles that I had to complete throughout the day (for instance, I did not have proof of an address as I could not use my previous address), but it quickly showcased for me how everyday tasks can be overwhelming if you do not have transportation, do not have the proper documents, or cannot maintain a job because your child is often too sick to attend school or daycare.

Another glimpse

My father had someone who was homeless working for him. This person usually worked at my dad’s warehouse during the winter and would make enough money that day to get a cheap hotel room for the night to stay warm. We didn’t see him when the weather was warm. I once asked him why he didn’t go to a shelter, and he told me of the instances when he was bullied, robbed, and assaulted.

I thought of these stories one night when my husband got a text from one of his students who had been kicked out of his home by his mother and wanted to know if we could get him a blanket as they were all out at the shelter. We, of course, helped him out but later learned that he had “aged out” of most of the family shelters, so his only refuge was an adult male shelter. I should also note that both he and his mother had mental illness issues and when they took their medication, they could maintain school and jobs; however, the medicine often made them sick and was sometimes too expensive for them to get.

I told these stories to a friend who worked for the Texas Homeless Network and learned that these stories are pretty common. He told me, “when you think about it, everyone is different, so everyone has their own particular story. So, it’s a bit naïve of us to believe that one thing like tiny houses will resolve the issue for everyone. There is not one thing that will work for everyone. We as a community must offer a variety of services offered in a variety of locations and times as well as different structures and requirements.

For instance, some shelters require that you be inside by 3 p.m. and leave by 7 a.m. That might not accommodate someone who has a job. Other shelters may require everyone to participate in a religious service to stay.” (Note: Just because an organization has a religious affiliation does not require participation).

I am not trying to solve the homeless issue with this column, and many of you dear readers may already know about these experiences. However, the next time you see a person with a sign that says “need a few $$ to get by” smiling and waving (maybe at the corner of Fones Road and Pacific Avenue in Olympia), keep in mind that they have a story and take some time to listen to it. (RIP Aaron Pollack)

Where You Can Help  

Here in Thurston County, we have quite a few nonprofit organizations that focus on helping the homeless. Some center on families, others veterans. Use the links included below to learn more about these organizations.I hope you will consider supporting them through volunteering or donating.

Soliciting your ideas

If you know of a nonprofit that is doing something great, celebrating a success, needs some outstanding volunteers or hosting an event, let me know! This column (aside from a little education) celebrates nonprofits! 

Mary Beth Harrington, CVA (Certified Volunteer Administrator) lives in Tumwater. She travels the country speaking at conferences and to individual organizations articulating issues facing nonprofits. Send your ideas to her at 


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  • TimRansom

    Thanks, Mary Beth, for sharing your experiences and thoughts. I suggest you add to your list, and get to know more about, Quixote Communities, here in Olympia. QC, then called Quixote Village, owned and operated by Panza, was formed back in 2013 as a permanent supportive housing community located on Mottman Road in SW Olympia. In 2013 thirty tiny houses were built in a community setting to house chronically homeless adults; many of the first residents were former inhabitants of Camp Quixote, an encampment that had been hosted and supported by a rotating list of churches in the Olympia/Lacey area for over six years. Camp Quixote's approach to permanent supportive housing has been quite successful, combining the security and consistency of housing with mental and physical health support and peer-based community. Recently Quixote Communities opened a second village in Orting (Pierce County) for military veterans, and anticipates starting construction of a third village, also for veterans, in Shelton (Macon County) this year. You can learn more at Regards, Tim Ransom

    Wednesday, January 19 Report this