Outsiders: Why Olympia is the focus of our homelessness podcast | KNKX

Outsiders: Why Olympia is the focus of our homelessness podcast

Jan 29, 2020

In the new podcast Outsiders, KNKX partnered with The Seattle Times' Project Homeless team to provide an up-close look at life and death among people who are unsheltered, and delve into some of the most pressing questions about the rise of homelessness on the West Coast.

The story is a regional one. More than 60 percent of the United States' unsheltered homeless population is concentrated in three states: California, Oregon and Washington. 

Many cities in those states have had some kind of reckoning with unsheltered homelessness in the past few years. The issue has confounded leaders and divided communities from Los Angeles to Seattle.

So why did we set our podcast in Olympia, Washington, a town of 50,000 people?

For one, Olympia's reckoning with homelessness was unusually dramatic. In a matter of weeks in late 2018, the number of tents in the city's downtown swelled from around 30 to more than 300. Olympia's leaders scrambled to build a system from scratch that could manage the crisis.

An encampment known as the "Smart Lot" in downtown Olympia, as seen on Jan. 9, 2019.
Credit Will James / KNKX

"The city’s never really been in the business of homeless services before," Meg Martin, a longtime advocate for people who are homeless in Olympia, said at the time. "The city, historically to this point, has always dealt with encampments as a public safety enforcement issue."

Then there was the desire among some Olympia leaders to make their city an example of what was possible, to succeed where much larger and better-resourced cities had failed.

"I think we’re at this pivotal moment right now where if we really take a leap of faith we could really make a change," Colin DeForrest, who oversees Olympia's response to homelessness, said in early 2019.

"That’s what’s exciting about Olympia," he said. "It’s so small, if we make the right decisions, the right choices, we’re going to really see it."

Colin DeForrest, who oversees Olympia's response to homelessness, meets with residents of an unsanctioned camp and service providers as he announces plans for a "mitigation site" on Nov. 26, 2018.
Credit Will James / KNKX

It was an intriguing bet. Could they pull it off?

And then there are the realities of reporting on unsheltered homelessness.

Many of the people we met and followed over the course of a year had sporadic, if any, access to phones and the internet.

Olympia was small enough that we could find them again and again, just by walking the streets and asking around.

The ability to follow people over time gave us a uniquely intimate view into unsheltered life and the forces that cause people to fall into homelessness — and keep them there. 

"Olympia will not take my hope," said Jessica, one of the people we met in late 2018 and followed as she tried to survive outside and find an end to her homelessness.

"I would give myself a year, at least," she said. "You know? Six months to a year. If you can’t, then what is there, you know? What is the world really coming to?"

But Olympia's also an ideal setting because of how it's not unusual. All of the same debates and struggles unfolding in booming metropolises such as San Francisco and Portland are happening here, in the few square blocks that make up Olympia's downtown. 

People living outside are waging the same daily battles against rain, cold, disease, hopelessness and other dangers. Politicians are navigating the same divides between constituents demanding a humanitarian response and those impatient with the effects of homelessness on their city. The same larger economic and social forces are exerting pressure.

Olympia provided us a microcosm, a chance to watch these issues unfold in real time.

But the questions we're exploring are regional ones: What causes homelessness? Why is it rising at a time of economic growth and prosperity on the West Coast? What actually works to fix it? And why do we feel the way we feel about it?

Episode 1 of Outsiders tells the story of those frenetic few weeks in the winter of late 2018 and early 2019, when Olympia's leaders rushed to address the sudden rise in the number of unsheltered people living downtown.

A photo at a Jan. 4, 2019 memorial for a man who died while unsheltered in Olympia.
Credit Will James / KNKX

Those weeks were marked by the city's scramble to set up a sanctioned camp, a court battle over the effects of homelessness, a death, and other events that set the stage for the year we cover in the podcast.

Listen to Episode 1 of Outsiders below, and subscribe to Outsiders wherever you get your podcasts.