Creating “low barrier” housing for sex offenders, felons, fugitives, and drug users in the City of Olympia has become a high priority for the Olympia City Council. Thurston County Commissioners have also jumped on board as indicated by this statement from Commissioner Valenzuela.
As a recent letter to the editor in The Olympian outlined, the community has many concerns about locating a shelter with this goal in the City of Olympia. Many of these concerns were about the location of the facility next to a private school and near a daycare facility. Another significant issue here is one of local government priorities. Olympian residents have shown that in order to build this shelter, other homeless folk would be abandoned.
Although you wouldn’t know this when reviewing actions taken by the City of Olympia, there is not unlimited money available for every fun idea, which might be why the City of Olympia is now over $90 million in debt.
Olympia’s elected officials commonly make interesting decisions, including the following recent priorities:
- Voting to gift a $1.07 million building (it was a $2 million building) for $1 to a nonprofit that would use it as a homeless shelter in downtown Olympia.
- Spending over $2.5 million to put up some tents (upgraded to mini-sheds) for another homeless camp called “Camp Quixote.” Substantial sums of money are disappearing into this glorified homeless shed project, which is rapidly becoming the most expensive collection of sheds in Washington State history. There will be 30 sheds for 30 homeless folk here, located on public land in the middle of an industrial park that Thurston County donated to the cause.
- Attempting to create a 50-foot buffer for the Port of Olympia. Like a Longshoreman union worker mentioned recently, “What are we supposed to do with the logs we ship from Olympia? Throw them like javelins onto the ships? This is a port, for God’s sake.”
- Building a $54 million Taj-Mahal City Hall with no parking provided for the public. Plus, they don’t want the homeless camping there, according to this article.
- Spending over $3 million to purchase land for a future park (without the money to fix the existing parks or clean up this new one). Elected officials made this purchase without asking for public input or putting an action item on the agenda.
- Drafting a plan to clean up the alleys in downtown Olympia at a cost of $400k to $450k per alley while ignoring the potholes and crumbling roads elsewhere. This might be intended to help with the homeless who can’t walk to the “low barrier” housing project.
- Spending time at a City Council retreat to learn some new dance moves (see this video).
Much of the initial $400,000 earmarked for this “low barrier” (no ID, no questions, no joke) shelter is taken from the Thurston County Home Consortium funds, which is a pile of cash Thurston County collects for homeless/low income housing projects. Structurally, there are several problems with how the Home Consortium distributes the cash from this fund.
- This fund has a very high overhead cost. Sure, Thurston County denies this by using the Consortium to also distribute some Federal HUD (Housing and Urban Development) grant funds (and therefore appearing to be okay on the “overhead” cost front). If you closely inspect the amount siphoned to keep the lights on and pay a handful of Thurston County employees, you'll find that large sums never get to any grant recipients. This money just circulates internally to help cover as many costs as possible in Thurston County government.
- Local semi-nonprofits and nonprofits present a variety of projects to the Home Consortium Board for potential funding. The final decisions on who wins these grants are ultimately political. The appointed members of the Home Consortium (local elected officials) make these choices – regardless of merit. The staff at Home Consortium have complained about the lack of scoring criteria for the merits of these projects in the past.
- While someone conducts nominal auditing of the HUD grants in the future, which have produced various findings in the past, the portion of the Home Consortium funds that use locally-acquired tax dollars have absolutely ZERO auditing oversight. None. Sure, the auditor verifies that the intended recipient cashed the check, but nobody bothers to verify if anything was actually accomplished. We discovered this last year when we looked into a small $43,000 grant to the Hope House in Tenino reported here. This story illustrates one reason a lot of groups are trying to get their hands on this cash. These organizations don’t have to worry about anyone checking to see if they spent it appropriately. No performance audits for these grant recipients. Trust them – I’m sure everything is great.
For some political reason, the Olympia City Council and Thurston County Commissioner Valenzuela want to take the approach of no questions asked, no ID needed, no idea who is staying at the “low-barrier” homeless project in Olympia. Their preference means there’s $400,000 less to use for families and children who are homeless – as this well-written letter by a local resident identifies.
We can be sure, based on past experience and Thurston County policy, that not one government employee or elected official will ever bother to check and see how these funds are spent, who received them, and if any of the “claims” justifying the grant dollars pan out. It could be a case of “don’t look for what you don’t want to find,” or it could just be that none of these people really care. It isn’t “their” money. Neither the homeless nor the community will be well-served by this approach, but it appears to be just the way things are done in Olympia and Thurston County.
As verified in the testimony given at the last City Council meeting where this subject was raised, the homeless (in Tacoma, Seattle, Spokane etc. ) will flock to the state Capital for this “few rules” or “low barrier” shelter rather than stay at rule-enforcing shelters. Thurston County will invite a higher concentration of sex offenders, felons, wanted criminals, and drug addicts to this facility and neighborhood. That might be the political objective, but, regardless, it certainly should raise some good policy questions both for local citizens and those elected to represent them.
This is just another day in the City of Olympia…where the political leadership continues to impress the rest of the state with their Olympian priorities.
In the City of Olympia, it really might be something in the water