Matt Driscoll

With new tent city ‘mitigation site,’ Olympia hopes to learn from Tacoma’s successes — and its failures

Taking a cue from Tacoma, the City of Olympia readies to build its own homeless mtigation site

During a Nov. 27th walk around several homeless tent sites downtown, Olympia's Homeless Response Coordinator Colin DeForrest explains the focus of the new homeless mitigation site which will be located across from the Intercity Transit Center.
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During a Nov. 27th walk around several homeless tent sites downtown, Olympia's Homeless Response Coordinator Colin DeForrest explains the focus of the new homeless mitigation site which will be located across from the Intercity Transit Center.

Colin DeForrest, the city of Olympia’s homeless response coordinator, called it an “explosion,” describing the increase in homelessness downtown — in a matter of months — as “massive.”

Looking around, DeForrest stood in between two city-owned parking lots, filled with tents instead of cars.

Back in August, DeForrest said, there were roughly 30 tents here, spread among three nearby sites. At the time, the scene was “concerning,” he recalled.

By the middle of this month, that number had grown, substantially — to 314.

Doing the math, DeForrest estimates that from 300 to 500 individuals experiencing homelessness are now living downtown, all congregated in a few city blocks.

This, DeForrest acknowledged, is unsustainable. He bluntly described the temperature amongst business owners and residents downtown as “ready to blow.”

That’s why, on Nov. 26, Olympia posted signs and notified individuals living in one of the parking lots that they had seven days to move — at least for a few weeks.

Once the site is cleared and cleaned, the lot — at Olympia Avenue Northeast and Franklin Street Northeast, just north of the Olympia Transit Center — will become home to what the city calls a “mitigation site.” It’s a move first considered in October.

In practical terms, it means 80 to 120 city-provided tents will be set up on 10-by-10-foot parcels, with portable toilets, garbage services and running water supplied.

The idea, DeForrest explained, is to provide emergency stabilization and triage to a growing population of individuals experiencing homelessness.

In addition to creating significant health and human safety concerns, he said, the situation has roiled downtown business owners and left the city with no choice but to try something different.

The explosion, and the hands-off enforcement response, were influenced by a recent federal appeals court decision, reaffirming that it’s unconstitutional to criminalize homelessness and activities associated with homelessness if people have nowhere else to go.

“Is a mitigation site the best answer and it’s going to take care of all the problems? Heck no,” DeForrest said. “Is it a Band-Aid? I think it’s more than a Band-Aid.

“It’s giving all of the individuals an opportunity to take a step in the right direction.”

Shades of Tacoma

If Olympia’s mitigation plan sounds familiar, that’s because it’s heavily influenced by the approach Tacoma took to deal with its homelessness crisis.

There’s a reason for that. For eight years, DeForrest was Tacoma’s homeless services manager. In April, he took a similar position with Olympia, bringing a wealth of ideas with him.

He views Olympia’s new plan as a way to recreate some of Tacoma’s successes, and to learn from the city’s mistakes.

There are plenty both, he said.

Much like in Tacoma, Olympia’s response will go beyond setting up one sanctioned tent city in a single parking lot. For starters, DeForrest said, a second mitigation site — outside of downtown — is “a must.”

More importantly, he said, is establishing an arrangement where future residents of the mitigation site “flow” through a functioning system that helps move them toward stable housing.

One possible location for individuals to move to once they graduate from the mitigation site is the community of tiny homes schedule to open early next year on a quarter-acre lot the city owns off near the Yashiro Japanese Garden, DeForrest said.

He also expressed hope that partnerships with local faith organizations would soon provide additional tiny home options.

The potential tiny homes offer, DeForrest said, can be “huge,” both for the housing they’d provide and for the strain they’d take off the county’s limited supply of permanent housing for individuals experiencing homelessness.

Looking further into the future, DeForrest said a permanent supportive housing development, to be paid for by the city’s new Home Fund, will add another important option, albeit it roughly two years down the road.

He also maintains some hope that the county and state will become more involved with what he described as “a regional issue.”

What’s clear is that if all of this comes together as the city envisions, it will represent a significant improvement to what Tacoma has experienced at its Dome District stability site.

Opened in June 2017, Tacoma’s massive endeavor — which houses about 80 individuals a night — was initially envisioned as the second phase in a three-part plan.

The third phase was to involve moving individuals out of the stability site and into better housing.

For the most part, that hasn’t happened. In September, Tacoma City Manager Elizabeth Pauli told the City Council that the effort had moved only 46 people — out of more than 200 who used the site — into permanent or temporary housing.

“What we learned was that we could not move people through and out of the stability site at the rate that we had hoped,” Pauli told the council.

Of the envisioned Phase 3, Pauli told The News Tribune: “I feel very confident in saying that was not a success.”

It’s one thing DeForrest is trying to prevent in Olympia.

“When I look at (Tacoma’s) stability site, one of the things that was challenging is people got stuck there,” DeForrest said. “I know there are still people there who were there when we opened that site.

“There’s a lack of flow to the system in (Tacoma), so one of the things we’re trying to create here.”

Unsurprisingly, cost is also a concern.

DeForrest said Olympia’s mitigation site — which he views as a hybrid between Tacoma’s initial efforts at a large, unauthorized encampment along Portland Avenue and the Dome District stability site — will cost about $100,000 annually.

While it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, Tacoma spent roughly $170,000 on its relatively brief mitigation effort, while the Dome District and is budgeted at more than $2 million a year.

Much of the difference, DeForrest said, is in the staffing.

Tacoma’s Dome District stability site contracts with Catholic Community Services to provide services and oversight. Olympia’s mitigation site will be “self-governed,” monitored by two on-site “hosts” who will live in tiny homes and receive a monthly stipend.

A level of self-governance already exists at the city’s current encampments, and the intent is to capitalize on that, DeForrest said.

“Even at the stability site, a lot of what we learned was, the more we try to have eyes on these individuals, and really control these individuals, and tell these individuals what to do … the more they’re going to fall into that role of, ‘OK, if there’s 10 staff here, then be my babysitter,’” DeForrest said.

“I think most of the stuff we did in Tacoma was successful,” he said. “But money was the other thing. Finding ways to save money, that’s really what we’re doing here.”

“Really what we’re trying to do (in Olympia) is challenge people to step up and have an opportunity to succeed.”

Defining success

Amidst all of the challenges presented by Olympia’s new, outside-the-box approach, perhaps one of the biggest will be setting clear expectations about what success ultimately looks like.

In Tacoma, DeForrest observed, the metric was based on how many individuals were moving out of the stability site and into more permanent housing. While important and an end goal in Olympia as well, he said, his experience in Tacoma has helped shape the way he’s hoping to define success this time.

“In Tacoma, we set up the stability site, and … there was this expectation that, ‘Oh, we’re going to set up this site and our gauge of success is going to be how quickly they get housed.’” he said. “Which, of course, is a gauge of success, but it’s not realistic.

“There’s just simply a housing shortage, and we’re dealing with the same thing — and even more so — down here in Olympia.”

In other words, whether the mitigation site experiment is worthwhile in Olympia, at least in DeForrest’s view, will rest on other conditions improving downtown.

For instance, DeForrest said, the city’s “clean team” is picking up roughly 1,000 dirty needles a month. Human waste is also a constant problem, for the clean team and business owners alike.

“As crazy as that sounds,” he said, “that’s going to be some of gauges of this successful or not.”

Meanwhile, some potential residents of the mitigation site remain skeptical.

Josh Brown, 28, said he’s been living in the parking lot that will become the site “for a couple months.”

Asked whether he’ll move into the mitigation site once it opens, Brown was noncommittal. He was hesitant to be housed in close quarters with other individuals, and said he “might just move back into the woods.”

At the same time, Brown predicted the site will fill up quickly.

“They have no other choice,” he said when asked whether his current neighbors in the parking lot will take the city up on its offer.

“They talk (expletive) about it,” he said, “but they have no other choice.”

Ultimately, while DeForrest is confident in Olympia’s mitigation site approach, he’s also realistic, acknowledging there will be missteps along the way.

He also admitted being nervous.

“I already know it’s going to be messy, and there are going to be challenges, and there are going to be things that don’t work,” he said.

“But look around,” he added.

“This isn’t working either.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.