Interfaith Works is asking local jurisdictions for emergency funding to open a winter warming center for the homeless population in downtown Olympia.
The warming center is intended to provide daytime relief from the cold weather while doubling as a safe place to socialize and sleep. Last year, three different faith communities took turns hosting a warming center during the winter with an average of 130 guests a day.
The threat of an extreme storm last weekend intensified the call for a warming center that will fill the void until the Providence Community Care Center — a social services hub for the street population — opens its doors in the spring in downtown Olympia.
To operate a warming center this year, Interfaith Works needs about $80,000 in contributions divided according to the populations of Olympia, Tumwater, Lacey and Thurston County.
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In response, the Olympia City Council approved an allocation of $17,200 during its Tuesday meeting. Tumwater has agreed to allocate $7,200, while a contribution of $40,000 from Thurston County awaits final approval. Interfaith Works is still seeking $15,600 from Lacey, shelter program director Meg Martin said.
If all goes as planned, the warming center would operate 7 a.m.-5 p.m. seven days a week from Nov. 1 through March 31. At least two staff members from the 37-bed Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter will be on duty at the warming center in addition to any volunteers.
“We are still working on funding one location for seven days a week, but as of now, we are going to be at United Churches of Olympia three days per week and at First Christian Church two days per week,” Martin told The Olympian. “We are still trying to find a location to cover the other two days per week.”
Guests at the warming center would be able to connect with critical social services related to health and housing, for example. Organizers say the warming center can relieve jails, hospitals and emergency services because fewer people would be left on the streets during winter weather. The estimated cost to serve each guest at a warming center is about $4.28 per person per day, according to Interfaith Works.
Olympia resident Jenny Heddin, who serves on the board at First Christian Church, urged the city to consider opening public facilities to assist the homeless during emergencies. Despite being unprepared to do so, First Christian Church served more than 100 people who sought emergency shelter last weekend in anticipation of an extreme storm, she said.
“We see a role the city could play in convening with the faith community and developing an emergency plan for the unsheltered in severe weather,” Heddin told the council Tuesday.
Jay Burney, assistant city manager, suggested the council hold a study session to clarify the city’s role in extreme weather events. Current policy allows the city to work with the American Red Cross and the school district to house people but only in an officially declared emergency, he said.
Before making a motion to approve funding for the warming center, Councilwoman Jessica Bateman called for creating an emergency shelter plan that can be enacted in the absence of a declared emergency.
“We really need to have an established protocol,” Bateman said. “This is a regional challenge.”
The 2016 Thurston County homeless census in January counted 579 homeless people. The count can be broken down into three groups: Those who are sheltered (235), those living in transitional nonpermanent housing (152) and those surviving on the street (192). The latter group is referred to as “unsheltered” — those people sleeping in places such as cars, parks and abandoned buildings.