Homeless Olympia, students and citizens

There are 1,164 homeless students in Thurston County. An eight percent decrease from last year’s high of 1,269, according to county staff. The count was part of the 2011 Thurston County homeless census.

Thurston County is still awaiting the full homeless census. The county staff’s delay in entering their data and Washington’s new low-functioning database slowed down the process, said Anna Schlecht, the housing program manager for the City of Olympia.

The number of homeless students is often higher than the census data show, due to the difficulty of pursuing students who don’t attend school regularly, said Schlecht.

The number is still higher than the 654 first recorded in 2006. As the overall number of homeless students decreased eight percent from 2010 to 2011, the amount of unsheltered students increased 28 percent, said Schlecht.

In order to gather statistics, volunteers are needed to find and count the homeless, according to Schlecht, and the places searched can be countless. Many start with homeless shelters but when searching the streets and the woods counting becomes more difficult.

This year a broad portion of Thurston County was covered by over 200 volunteers.

“All five food banks, mostly all of the social service centers, all of the shelters and housing facilities, a street census and a camp census” were involved, said Schlecht.

She said it can be a struggle to calculate the precise number of homeless people. Searching for those who don’t have addresses or listed numbers is difficult.

Some homeless people try to be low-key as well in order to maintain their current location, while others stay clear of government authority to avoid criminal prosecution.

Schlecht said that, according to the 2010 collected data, over 40 percent are mentally ill.

The Ten-Year Plan

The Homeless Housing and Assistance Act of 2005 (RCW 43.185C) requires counties in the state of Washington to progressively eliminate homelessness. Thurston County takes part in a statewide homeless census at the end of January each year.

The goal is to ensure that 50 percent of those homeless in 2006 are housed by July 2015. According to the 2010 Thurston County Homeless census, homelessness increased 121 percent since the 2006 starting point.

The 976 total increased to 1,339 when factoring in those that would face homelessness when released from incarceration as well as those who stayed with family and friends.

Another element to the Homeless Housing and Assistance Act was to create 300 new permanent housing units. In the first half of the starting point 135 new permanent homes were created and 80 housing units were underway, according to the 2010 Thurston County homeless census.

SPSCC Students

South Puget Sound Community College is open-door to all, according to Eileen Yoshina, SPSCC’s director of diversity and equity. Yet in order to apply to SPSCC you must provide an address.

The admission and registration system doesn’t document the number of homeless students attending SPSCC, said Kathy Rhodes, the Dean of Enrollment Services.

A current homeless student believes a representative needs to be provided for each community college. “Charlie Conway,” the student’s street name, said they needed to put the homeless student’s circumstances into consideration.

According to Conway he wasn’t able to purchase any books and had nowhere to live his first day of class.

“I was eventually able to receive a special voucher after pleading to a school counselor about not knowing what to do and not wanting to lose this chance at a future,” said Conway.

The advocate could make the process easier by helping with paperwork, providing supplies and allowing the person to receive their mail at the school, said Conway.

Conway bargained with an SPSCC receptionist. Conway’s listed address was out of Olympia and not his residence. Instead of mailing out his award letter the receptionist kept it in her desk to give to him.

A representative for the homeless could help tremendously. The depression might be lifted if someone was providing the resources needed in order to go school.

“This person that you thought was a waste of time and didn’t deserve to go to school may become the best student once they realized there was hope,” said Conway.

Yoshina has seen troubled students having to couch surf. Although they didn’t face living on the streets or in the woods, the students were very close, said Yoshina. The several students she interacted with struggled to do well in school and eventually had to drop out.

“I think more students than we realize are very much struggling with the security of their residence,” said Yoshina.

A past student of David Chamberlain, a basic skills professor at SPSCC, had lived out of a tent in the woods while pursuing his General Education Degree at SPSCC during fall quarter. Once the weather grew colder he stayed with friends. He qualified for classes at SPSCC by taking the current procedural terminology but was late in completing his Financial Aid. According to Chamberlain, his goal was to attend the Evergreen State College in spring once his Financial Aid was in order.

Conway became depressed after his girlfriend and him broke up which resulted in his son moving an hour away. Conway began spending impulsively, drinking and lost hope for the future.

He eventually began living in his car. He’d allow one or two homeless peers to stay in the vehicle in order to increase the temperature.

Amphetamines are popular in the homeless community, said Conway. It allows for a sleepless night and constant movement. Inside and outside of downtown buildings he witnessed heavy drug use.

There were also “blatant assaults” among his peers, according to Conway. Territorially disputes over panhandling rights between the homeless occurred as well.

Going to bed early and waking up early was a part of Conway’s daily routine due to the cold weather. He’d gather money with acquaintances in order to purchase marijuana as well.

Conway eventually applied to school, putting a great amount of effort into checking the mail at his mailing address. He’s going to school and studying renting rooms occasionally and other times not.

Camp Quixote: “Homelessness is not a category of people; it is a circumstance that people find themselves in.”

Camp Quixote to Quixote Village all the way to SPSCC’s backyard.

Half a mile west of South Puget Sound Community College, on Mottman road, is a 1.6 acre site. It was offered to Camp Quixote by Thurston County in order to develop permanent housing for camp residents. In order to begin building the zoning rules must be altered. Upon Camp Quixote’s request, Olympia’s Planning Commission will hold a public hearing May 2, at 5 PM to discuss the changes that need to be made.

The camp is currently pursuing their goal of low-cost, sustainable, and affordable housing. Both Camp residents and Panza, a local non-profit organization who supports and partners with Camp Quixote have been discussing the design plan for the village with architects offering pro bono services.

The hope is to create about 30 one-room cottages that will provide heat, light, and plumbing. The cottages will be built around a central community building that contains a kitchen, showers, bathrooms, and laundry amenities, along with social and meeting spaces.

The Camp began with a law that prohibited sitting, panhandling and performing on Olympia’s sidewalks four years ago. Together the Poor People’s Union gathered to gain a community and claim their right to exist. In February, 2007 police attempted to dismantle the tents and chase away the people in the downtown, Olympia parking lot, it was then a local church extended their hand.

“We were asked both by a city council member and by homeless advocates if we would allow Camp Quixote to move onto our property,” said Arthur Vaeni, the reverend of the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Church, OUUC.

The church’s Board of Trustees made the decision to provide the Camp with a place on the property to set camp until the congregation could all vote.

“Several days later a meeting was convened and heeding the call of compassion and the requirement of justice, the congregation voted to provide sanctuary to Camp Quixote,” said Reverend Vaeni.

After a few months the City of Olympia and eventually Tumwater as well as Lacey passed an ordinance. Other congregations began reaching out to Camp Quixote. The ordinance allows faith communities to offer the Camp sanctuary on their properties. It requires the Camp to move every 90 days and to have a 24-hour host desk.

The camp is committed to pursuing Quixote Village not only to have a permanent residence but to grow in their self-governing community.

At-risk youths at the New Market Skills Center have constructed three 70-square-foot mobile homes for Camp Quixote residents. They were assembled for the Camp to use while waiting for permanent housing.

The Camp is comfortable and safe according to Don Hutchings, a three year Camp Quixote resident.

“I like it here because I don’t have to worry about somebody raiding my camp,” said Hutchings.

Camp Quixote gives the tenants, like Hutchings, a place to put their belongings as well as a place to be.

Once homeless citizens are prohibited from using public space without any given alternatives a restriction of a certain space isn’t the only thing being taken. “It can diminish their most fundamental right to simply be,” said Reverend Vaeni.