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Outsiders: The 40-year story behind hundreds of tents appearing in downtown Olympia

Olympia's sanctioned tent city, known as the "mitigation site," as seen on Jan. 8, 2020.
Parker Miles Blohm
Olympia's sanctioned tent city, known as the "mitigation site," as seen on Jan. 8, 2020.

In late 2018, the number of tents in downtown Olympia swelled from around 30 to more than 300 in about a three-month period.

It was an extreme example of what cities up and down the West Coast have wrestled with during the post-recession years: unprecedented levels of visible, unsheltered homelessness.

In the Olympia area, the number of people living outside counted in an annual census of the homeless population tripled from 124 to 394 in a two-year period, from 2017 to 2019.

It left residents of Olympia, even some of the people experiencing homelessness there, with the same question: What happened? 

"Olympia is the state capital. This is supposed to be a beautiful place," said a woman named Jessica, who lived in one of three large encampments that appeared in downtown Olympia in late 2018.

"Us homeless people, as you see the trash over here, and the mounds of trash everywhere, we make it nasty around here," she said. "And I want my state capital back and I want it to be beautiful again."

Olympia's sudden rise in visible homelessness was the catalyst for Outsiders, a podcast by KNKX and The Seattle Times' Project Homeless team, which explores the forces driving the rise in unsheltered homelessness on the West Coast. 

Deepening the mystery: Homelessness rose in Washington state during a time of rapid growth, while many social and economic measures were improving.

The number of people working rose, as did incomes. In Thurston County, where Olympia is, median income shot up $6,000 in a single year, between 2017 and 2018.

Domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, and family break-ups dropped during the same period, according to Tedd Kelleher, who manages housing assistance for the state Department of Commerce.

Trends in drug use also don't appear to match the rise in homelessness, Kelleher said. In the post-recession years, measures of opioid addiction increased more slowly than homelessness did. 

"Not that we can’t make improvements in all of those areas that might have an impact on homelessness," he said. "But we haven’t seen a deterioration in those measures that would point to the increase in homelessness."

Episode 2 of Outsiders outlines the forces at play during the four-decade period some researchers call the United States' "modern era of homelessness." 

It was a time of gentrification of inner cities, the shuttering of psychiatric hospitals, cuts to federal support for people in poverty, and an economic wave that transformed cities on the West Coast. 

Episode 2 also covers a 2018 court decision that caused homelessness to suddenly become more visible in some western cities, including Olympia. 

"People kind of just came out of the shadows, out of the woodwork, and they were visible," said Colin DeForrest, a city employee overseeing the response to homelessness in Olympia.

"For so long, the unwritten agreement was, ‘If you’re homeless, just hide,'" he said. "And as long as we don’t have to see you and deal with you, then we’re good to go. And I think that, thank goodness, that has changed." 

Listen above for an excerpt of Episode 2 of Outsiders. The full episode is available here or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.
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