The Olympia City Council agreed Tuesday night to earmark $35,000 to expand access to “low-barrier” homeless shelters in the community, such as a cold-weather shelter at the Salvation Army.
In an interview, Mayor Stephen Buxbaum said the money could be spent on additional shelter space, beds or staffing, but he acknowledged that not all of it has to be used. A low-barrier shelter is one that has few rules restricting who can spend the night.
“I think the council’s end in mind is increasing shelter capacity for those individuals that are hardest to serve and have not fit in well with the existing shelter system,” he said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Buxbaum noted that the Salvation Army’s shelter on Fifth Avenue (which serves as many as 42 single men and 16 single women) has been running at 65 percent of capacity, notwithstanding bigger crowds during recent cold weather. Advocates for the homeless say some people don’t want to follow the Salvation Army’s rules.
Maj. Bill Lum of the Salvation Army said those rules include requiring shelter residents to save 85 percent of their money, to check in at a certain time, and to not use alcohol or illegal substances.
“And it’s not for everyone,” he said. “It’s for the person that’s ready and wants to make some real changes.”
The city is talking to the Salvation Army about expanding access to its cold-weather shelter, which operates in addition to its year-round capacity when the temperature drops to 38 degrees or below, according to Lum. It can sleep 25 single men and four single women.
Lum said the cold-weather shelter, which is segregated from the regular population, already has greatly reduced rules. Residents don’t need identification and can be a bit intoxicated if they’re not disruptive.
But Lum said the Salvation Army is considering dropping a ban on Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders. Lum also is considering being more flexible about check-in hours.
“I believe that a low-barrier shelter serves a purpose, and I believe it is a short-term solution to the increased viability of homelessness,” he said.
According to a staff report, the city also is talking with a faith-based cold-weather shelter that moves among a rotating list of churches and faith communities. It serves families.
The council has been working to increase shelter space after passing bans on camping on public property at any time and sitting and lying on sidewalks from 7 a.m.-midnight.
At the city’s prompting, Rosie’s Place, a drop-in center for youth, is working to open a 10-bed shelter for 18- to 21-year-olds soon.
The city also has been evaluating other services, such as public restrooms.
Buxbaum said the conversation about more low-barrier shelters is just beginning.
“Reducing the rules and restrictions on the cold-weather shelter is a good start,” he said. “However, we also want to look at the possibility of either an additional shelter or a new way of managing the cold-weather shelter.”