In March 2019, the City launched a yearlong planning effort aimed at finding community agreement around how to best respond to the homeless crisis. At the time homelessness in Olympia appeared to be growing dramatically. In the summer of 2018, tents started to appear in Downtown parking lots, growing from 75 in August to over 300 by early October. In January of 2019, Thurston County’s annual homeless census counted 394 unsheltered persons, up from 124 in 2017. Many of these individuals were sleeping in Olympia, in the woods, under bridges, in vehicles and on Downtown streets.
Concerns grew about the safety of the individuals, the impacts on the community and the environment. Community members were pleading with the City to take action, yet people saw the problem and solutions very differently.
In the summer of 2018, the City Council declared a public health emergency. Several emergency actions were taken, including opening a tiny house village and a safe camping site known as the Downtown mitigation site, helping fund an expansion at the local youth shelter and incentivizing faith community partners to host temporary emergency housing. At the same time, the City Council recognized a more planned and coordinated long-term response would be necessary in order to have a lasting and sustainable impact.
To engage the public, the City used a Participatory Leadership approach specifically designed for identifying community-based solutions to incredibly wicked and complex challenges. This approach involved creating a Community Work Group made up of 11 volunteers with different life experiences and perspectives. Their role was to deeply listen to the voices of the community to identify the strategic direction.
This process included hearing from over 1,200 people through 20 different community conversations and two online surveys. Community members engaged in important civic dialogue, face-to-face with one another and across significant differences. The Community Work Group heard from a wide and diverse cross-section of stakeholders, including people experiencing homelessness, neighborhood residents, faith leaders, business and property owners, Downtown visitors and employees, and people representing social services, emergency services, hospitals and school organizations. Despite what often seems like a polarizing topic, the process uncovered significant areas of agreement about what needs to be done.