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Can Olympia come up with new answers to the West Coast’s homelessness crisis?

Can Olympia come up with new answers to the West Coast’s homelessness crisis?

Picture of Will James

In 2017, the number of people who are homeless in the U.S. rose for the first time in seven years. The reason: Growing homeless populations in West Coast cities.  

In communities like San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, the crisis defied booming economies and expanding budgets. Vast encampments grew within sight of glass towers that housed Google, Facebook and Amazon. At least 10 Western cities and counties declared states of emergency.

In many corners of the West, recognition dawned that homelessness was something more than an economic phenomenon; it was a crisis of public health.

In King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, the medical examiner identified 194 people who died while homeless in 2018. That’s more than double the number of such deaths in 2012.

The median lifespan of people who died while homeless was 54, a quarter-century less than other county residents.

A reckoning around homelessness spread from large cities to smaller ones as rents pressed upward and development displaced tenants from “flophouses” and other cheap forms of housing. In many communities, homelessness came to dominate local politics and public health efforts.

In late 2018, the reckoning came to Washington’s capital city, Olympia. 

In a matter of weeks, the number of tents in downtown Olympia swelled from around 30 to more than 300. The capital of a state that’s home to the two wealthiest people on earth, where the governor was running for president touting his state’s economic ascendency, seemed to be awash in poverty. 

Residents lined up at City Council meetings to talk about how they no longer felt safe walking downtown. Hundreds flocked to Facebook groups devoted to portraying the unsheltered as drug-addicted and dangerous.

Meanwhile, others ventured into the camps to deliver supplies. Some argued people without shelter have a right to sleep where they want, and confronted security guards to stop them from rousing people from shop doorways.

In Olympia, the spike in homelessness was the result of a September federal Court of Appeals decision in a case out of Boise, Idaho, which made it harder for police officers to penalize or displace people who were sleeping outdoors.

For years, Olympia, like many communities, had dealt with homelessness by clearing away encampments. Suddenly, that was no longer an option.

People who had been relegated to hiding in the woods or migrating from campsite to campsite felt emboldened to pitch their tents in the heart of the city. 

“For so many years, the cycle has been to move people into less visible places,” said Meg Martin, a founder of one of Olympia’s shelters. "I don’t believe our community has ever had to face this issue with such raw eyes as we are now.”

Olympia’s leaders had to chart a new path forward. They made a bet: That they could manage the crisis successfully enough that Olympia could serve as a model for other communities grappling with homelessness. It was bold. Much larger cities had spent tens of millions of dollars to little effect.

Olympia’s bet thrust the city into the middle of an issue as complex as poverty itself, at the intersection of risings rents and stagnant wages; substance use and mental illness; sexual abuse and childhood trauma; and age-old debates about how to treat people convicted of crimes and who deserve society’s help.  

Some in Olympia describe homelessness in purely economic terms. “To get a house you need money,” said Robert Lytle, who has been homeless in the Olympia area for two years. “To get money you need a job. To get a job you need a house. I'm more than qualified for everything that I'm applying for, but I'm not getting it because I'm homeless.”

Yet others in Olympia’s encampments often link their homelessness to forces beyond economics, to lifelong struggles they’re trying to overcome. They talk about depression and methamphetamine use, the deaths of parents or children, rape, divorce, criminal convictions, or old trauma that is compounded every year they remain on the streets.

Some see it as a sign that the very fabric of society is fraying.

“I think we've really lost the sense of community,” said a woman who goes by the name Tall Sara on Olympia’s streets. “As our parents and parents' parents have passed down information from generation to generation, there's like a large gap of missing information for us. Otherwise we wouldn't be out here like this.”

After reporting on homelessness for three years, I sometimes feel I know less than when I started. It can feel like zooming in on a digital image and glimpsing the millions of pixels that make it up.

One day, I’m in the world of academics and politicians, where there are clear explanations for what causes homelessness and how to fix it.

The next, I’m walking through an encampment where the solutions look as complicated and varied as people’s individual lives.

I’m still looking for answers, and for ways to help audiences all around the country understand the gravity and complexity of rising homelessness on the West Coast.

That’s why, with the help of 2019 National Fellowship and the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, I’m making a podcast that explores some of the most fundamental questions around homelessness: What causes it? What actually works to fix it? What does it feel like to be homeless? Why do we feel so strongly about this issue? And is it actually a symptom of broader forces at work in our society?

My hope is that, by leveraging the unique strengths of audio journalism, my partners and I can capture the reality homelessness in a way that’s proven difficult so far.

Meanwhile, we hope to bring some degree of understanding to an issue that’s a source of political and social division in many communities.

A podcast needs a story. This one is the story of Olympia, a city grappling with the most delicate, controversial, and consequential questions around homelessness right now.

Olympia’s response may offer a path forward for other communities. Or it may simply show how vexing and immense this challenge truly is. 

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