Discussions about homelessness dominated Olympia's first City Council meeting of 2020. It was standing room only, as residents packed the council chambers last night to speak about the issue.
Some described feeling unsafe in a city that's grappled with a rise in visible, unsheltered homelessness over the past year. Meanwhile, homeless residents of the city and their advocates pleaded for compassion. C.C. Coates is a former carpenter who is now disabled and homeless.
"This same criminal element that these housed people are so afraid of, I've got to live with,” Coates said during the meeting. “I'm not safe. Where's my safety? We're supposed to be a safe city. We need to figure out this housing affair."
City Council members pointed to an array of new responses to homelessness they've rolled out in recent years. Those include a sanctioned camp, a tiny house village and a new tax to fund the construction of housing. City leaders also say they're working with nearby cities and Thurston County to craft a regional response to homelessness.
Leaders in Thurston County say they're working to coordinate the ways they address homelessness and a lack of affordable housing. A new Regional Housing Council met in December. It includes representatives from Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater and the county. Jim Cooper, an Olympia City Council member who chairs the group, updated his fellow City Council members last night.
"The vision of the Regional Housing Council is that all Thurston County residents have equitable access to safe and affordable housing — period."
Housing prices and homelessness have risen across Thurston County as the population has grown. But virtually all homeless services in the county are concentrated in downtown Olympia. The city's leaders have urged officials in surrounding communities to bear more of the burden, but the response has been slow.
Cooper says the Regional Housing Council meets again in February, and hopes to create a formal committee in the coming months. The effort comes as leaders in Seattle and King County work to combine their homeless service systems, after officials signed off on the move last month.