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Thurston County will try new approach to serve the unsheltered

An encampment in downtown Olympia in December 2018.
Will James
An encampment in downtown Olympia in December 2018.

Officials in Thurston County are experimenting with a new way of responding to homelessness. Instead of breaking up encampments, they plan to support people living outdoors in their existing camps.

The one-year pilot program will bring garbage pickup and social services to four different camps in Olympia.

“We have to start thinking like this. We have to start thinking outside the box,” said Keylee Marineau, who oversees homeless services for Thurston County. “We don’t have enough space for people to come inside, and we don’t have the political will, and the public will, to develop those necessarily at the rate at which we need them, in the places in which we need them.”

She thinks people might be more likely to work with caseworkers and then find housing if they’re allowed to stay in one place.

“Arguably, you know, the hope is, that if you provide some stability and some consistency … we’ll see more people accessing the services that they need,” Marineau explained.

Service providers will also work with each camp to create a system of self-governance and rules of conduct. The group Olympia Mutual Aid Partners will be providing services and gathering data on how well the plan is working.

There is potential for disruption: Some of the camps are on private property and could be cleared away before the pilot program is over.

Thurston County is devoting more than $900,000 to the project. Once the year is over, officials say, they’ll look at data and assess their next steps. 

LEARN MOREKNKX Public Radio and The Seattle Times' Project Homeless spent one year in Olympia, a city that’s grappling with homelessness. What’s it like to live outside for months on end? What’s it like when tents come to your neighborhood? What new solutions can city leaders find? They documented this yearlong exploration in Outsiders.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.