Shawn Davis says he was the first person to spend the night outside City Hall, about a year ago. Little by little, more people joined the 19-year-old until they numbered as many as 30 in blankets and sleeping bags on recent nights. Most of the campers appear to be younger; Davis said most are between 18 and 21, but there are juveniles from time to time.
Soon they will have to find another place to go.
“It’s going to hurt because I’m going to see a lot of these people that like this place and want to stay here,” he said. “It’s raining. It’s about to start snowing. We’re all going to get wet.”
As Olympia prepares to ban camping in public places starting Feb. 8 and add restrictions to sitting and lying on sidewalks Jan. 18, Community Youth Services is scrambling to open a shelter for young people next month in the drop-in center it now hosts at its administrative offices on State Avenue. At risk is an age group that is particularly vulnerable to exploitation and one that, experts say, must be housed soon or be at risk of being homeless for a long time.
YOUTHS ON THE STREET
The Thurston County Homeless Census counted 724 homeless people in the county this year, from downtown Olympia sidewalks to shelters to tents in the woods. Of the 691 people who gave an age, 320 were 25 or younger. There were 45 homeless people counted between 18 and 20; 87 between 21 and 25; and 188 younger than 18.
Many of these youths are served by one agency: Community Youth Services. It already operates a shelter for homeless juveniles called Haven House, and a day center for ages 21 and younger.
But Charles Shelan, chief executive officer of Community Youth Services, sees an emergency need to shelter 18- to 21-year-olds. He cites the violence in the woods — two homicides in the past six months in Thurston County that were associated with transient people.
In one case, police found charred human remains in a 50-gallon burn barrel in October near a camp in the 900 block of Devoe Street. In another, police found a 37-year-old man stabbed to death, allegedly with a broken whiskey bottle, on a sidewalk off Cooper Point Road.
“We feel like it’s a moral responsibility to provide a safe, secure place for young people to be while they’re getting their lives together,” he said.
Shelan recently secured $42,000 from the Thurston County HOME Consortium, an intergovernmental group, to open an emergency shelter at Rosie’s Place for 18- to 21-year-olds for about three months.
“At that time we’re going to take a break. We’re going to evaluate how it’s gone,” he said. If there’s an ongoing need, the shelter could operate year-round for about $180,000.
He said he hopes that if the shelter works, he can find another place that’s more accommodating. Rosie’s Place doesn’t have showers or bathrooms designed for overnight shelter.
For now, the shelter will be able to house only 10 people overnight out of more than 45 youths who visit the day center, Shelan said. He’ll have to do a lottery Monday afternoon to decide who stays overnight for the week. The agency will try to find homes for the rest.
“What you want to do is work to get people off the streets as quickly as you can, because the longer people stay out there, the more habituated they become,” he said.
NEW CITY REGULATIONS
There is a sense of urgency in opening the shelter. Camping on any city property is expected to be banned starting Feb. 8. It will also be more difficult to find other places to sleep because sitting and lying on sidewalks downtown will be banned for the entire sidewalk, instead of the 6-foot zone from the building edge, as is the case now. The ban will apply from 7 a.m.-midnight, longer than the present ban, which is from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The council moved to enact the new regulations Tuesday after visitors complained that campers blocked access to the city building, a city employee was attacked by a dog, and maintenance workers found feces, urine and drug paraphernalia next to the $50 million building that’s not yet 3 years old.
Davis said it’s a small group of people who are causing the trouble for everybody else. Mostly, the outside of City Hall is the destination for young people.
“More people sleep at City Hall than anywhere else,” he said.
Campers said they came to City Hall because it’s safe and dry — with a large overhang and police headquarters next door. And they don’t want to leave.
Damien Williams of Juneau, Alaska, asked the city “to allow us to camp where we feel is dry and safe, and to make sure that we abide by, like, the rules.” He said he doesn’t know where he’d go if he couldn’t sleep outside the government building.
Davis said he became homeless like so many kids have, by “not listening to my parents.”
His dad and stepmom broke up recently, he doesn’t know where his mother is, and “my dad wants me to prove to him that I can survive,” he said.
Family breakups were the leading cause of homelessness in the homeless census, representing 22 percent of respondents.
BUILDING A NEW SYSTEM
Buxbaum said he contacted Community Youth Services about the need for a shelter a few months ago.
“There are more homeless youth, and they are more visible,” he said.
Buxbaum has been pushing for a new system for serving the homeless, built from the ground up based on data, rather than the past practice of responding to individual needs from service providers. He has pushed Thurston County to do a comprehensive assessment of the gaps in the social-service system so that limited money can be targeted strategically.
One of those gaps, he said, is homeless youths.
“I think that clearly a gap in our service system is having a support network for youth 18 to 21,” he said.
Some measures have been taken toward the system Buxbaum envisioned. In recent years, the city funded the formation of SideWalk, a central intake center for single homeless people that assigns them to shelters and helps get them into housing. It has designated the Family Support Center as the intake center for families, and the city is essentially donating its Smith Building and funding an effort to turn it into a shelter and permanent housing for families.
Buxbaum said he also pushed for an analysis of the gaps in the safety net and for a full-time homeless coordinator.
The county hired Theresa Slusher of the county’s housing authority on a one-year contract to do the analysis and coordinate.
Slusher said that her analysis isn’t finished (it should be before her contract ends in March) but that the shelter at Rosie’s Place is something her analysis would support.
“We’re right in the middle of pulling information together about … how many kids are out there and what are the right kinds of solutions and what is really going to work for them,” she said.