City Rejects Emergency Storm Shelter

Volunteers Step in to Fill the gap in Services

By Jon Fitzgerald

Last week, members of the community started contacting members of  City Hall to open up a shelter for the coming wind and rainstorm, which was expected to have up to sixty mile an hour winds and large amounts of rain. Despite calls for a shelter to open and the general approval by city council members, the city did not take any actions, and members of the community stepped up to open a shelter for people in need.

Just Housing, a grassroots movement for housing justice in Olympia, was largely behind the emergency maneuver and have found renewed energy in their successful call-to-action, continuing to rally for action from city council to benefit of the homeless community.

My partner and I stopped by First Christian Church on Friday afternoon. We had heard the shelter had opened out of necessity because of the storm and we dropped off some blankets and socks. Inside there was a space for sleeping, a space for standing, a line into the kitchen, stacks of blankets, socks, and instant noodles. There was stuff everywhere and people everywhere trying to warm up, so we were in and out in a second.

This emergency shelter was something we only witnessed because of one post on social media that was shared by a friend and we happened to see and a decision we made because we happened to have free time. But we knew we wouldn’t be in danger during this storm: weather reports were only warning about things like trees damaging property, not homes blowing away or belongings being destroyed. For all the people don’t have homes, a large part of Olympia’s population, this big storm coming was definitely something to worry about.

Starting Thursday morning, various community organizers started pressing the city to open up a public building as an emergency shelter. In the meantime, Interfaith Works at First Christian Church, who hosts an overnight shelter as their ordinary mode of operations, opened their shelter space for what they thought would be the one day. Although support among the city council was favorable, the opening of a public space was declined and at that point, Just Housing organizers began recruiting staff to keep the shelter at First Christian Church open through the night and eventually the whole weekend. Approximately 100 people sought shelter each night of the storm on top of the church’s 37 year-round shelter beds. The shelter was also able to serve hundreds of meals and provide changes of clothes and blankets, entirely thanks to community donations.

On Tuesday, October 18, Just Housing and other members of the community rallied outside of City Hall and announced their list of community needs with a megaphone before speaking at the city council meeting that evening. The list included repealing the city’s “No Sit/Lie” policy- an ordinance that prohibits sitting or lying in public spaces- and designating city land for tents, but also included things like putting policies in place that would implement incentives for landlords who lower screening requirements and rent to low-income renters. While it seems this storm may have helped bring attention to  their cause, Just Housing had already been attending city council meetings and voicing these needs, including the week before.

Although to many the storm may not have been as severe as predicted, even normal winter conditions in Olympia present dangers for the city’s homeless, and we have a lot of people suffering through those conditions. In January of 2016, The Thurston County Homeless Point-in-Time Count totalled 586 homeless people during the course of one day. A visible number of our citizens are in need and last week the City of Olympia declined giving up space in a public building for emergency shelter during a storm. As a friend-of-a-friend pointed out, there’s a lot of free space in the Capital that could be put to good use giving people shelter.