"And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful the risk it took to blossom..."
The Interfaith Works Emergency Shelter team has been operating a Winter Warming Center every day for the past 4 months. After several initial weeks using the facilities of two generous downtown faith communities, on December 19th we took a big leap and relocated our program to 408 Olympia Ave. in the old Alpine Experience building. This is the first time we have operated emergency services for our neighbors experiencing homelessness in a commercial, non faith-based building. We are grateful for the unified support of Thurston County and the cities of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater, who came to unusually quick consensus that the Warming Center was a critical public health and safety need. We are grateful to our landlord, the Hyer family for providing us with an affordable space to be, fighting stigma and believing in serving vulnerable people. We are grateful for the businesses and organizations surrounding the Warming Center for remaining communicative with us through this process which has not always been easy.
Our resourceful and skilled guests popped up and operate their own bike repair shop in the old bike shop area of the former store, we have games and movies, coffee like it's nobody's business and basic first aid/hygiene supplies, gloves, hats and socks for whoever need them. Generous community members have donated lunches, blankets, hand warmers and so much more to help make this program function.
In this new location we are much better able to connect with support service providers to get people living on the streets more access to their programs. We partnered with iCount Thurston and served as the hub location for this year's Point in Time Count, the Olympia Free Clinic has been operating weekly on Mondays to provide primary care support to our guests and Tuesdays for a wound care clinic, this year's service portion of the annual HipHop4The Homeless event was hosted at the Warming Center, case workers from SideWalk and Behavioral Health Resources have been able to locate their clients easier, outreach services like PATH and the Downtown Ambassadors (operated through the Capitol Recovery Center) and Community Youth Services Outreach are better able to connect with folks and enroll them in services.
Anecdotally, we have been told that the Timberland Regional Library and many downtown businesses have reported that downtown is quieter, calmer and able to carry on with business as usual without having to deal with so many of the negative social occurrences that happen when people have nowhere to go and are struggling to meet their basic needs.
"I wanted to share how the Warming Center has impacted the library. We have seen a dramatic decrease in incidents as well as the general mood of the homeless community. Patrons have commented that the library is much quieter and everyone is able to enjoy the library. I believe that the Warming Center has dramatically improved the community especially for downtown businesses and the library. You are doing such great work. I hope that someday it could be year round."
As I often say, this work is not easy. On day one of this season's Warming Center we saw significantly more guests than we did last year. This trend has accelerated since moving to the Alpine Experience site, with a current daily average of 163 sign-in's per day, and an all time daily high of 237 sign-in's on January 23rd. The majority of our daily guests are from here, they've grown up here and they are downtown everyday. They spend every cent they have at downtown businesses and are a strong part of the fabric of downtown. We have witnessed many serious medical emergencies at the Warming Center that could have easily resulted in death had we not been there to intervene. By providing a place to rest during the day we have reduced contacts with emergency services like law enforcement and emergency department trips for many people. We have performed two memorial services for guests who passed away this winter; one local man passed away surrounded by friends and caring community members in the Warming Center rather than alone in the woods.
This work is not easy. We have two bathrooms and two portable toilets at our current location. The flu rampaged through the Warming Center and also our nightly shelter causing serious hospitalizations and cases of pneumonia for many fragile people, including staff members. The building housing the Warming Center is dilapidated, the ceiling leaks and the plumbing is shot. There is nowhere outside for people to be without making it difficult for neighboring businesses. There is no good place for people to relieve their service animals and pets. There are not enough mats for people to rest on, and not enough services being provided. The large numbers showing up each day -- significantly exceeding what we experienced previously at our faith based locations -- set us back on our heels, and we had to incrementally scale up our staffing resources in response. It is obvious to us that this scrambling, emergency reaction without adequate resources or a clear plan from the community, cannot cut it any longer.
We are excited to be working with Providence Health Services to open the downtown Community Care Center later this year, but it has become abundantly clear that it will not fill the role of the Warming Center. We are happy to work with the City of Olympia and regional partners to create a plan for a permanent day center and expanded nightly sheltering/permanent supportive housing options for the continuously growing population of people in our community experiencing homelessness. One major blessing of the Warming Center is the opportunity it has provided to gather information, learn from the challenges and use the experience to inform planning for the good of everyone -- and I really mean everyone -- in our community.
We must incorporate a homeless housing strategy as part of any overall housing strategy and create real plans for maintaining and increasing the stock of affordable housing in our area or we will never get out of this vicious cycle of providing band-aid approaches to a gash that will not clot. We must also recognize the vitally important role that emergency services play and realize that we need to do both -- meet the immediate need and at the same time plan for permanent housing solutions. We cannot have one without the other. Please let your elected officials from the city level to the state know that funding affordable housing and emergencies services is crucial to the health and well being of our families, businesses, government and any progress that we hope to see in our community.
The costs of additional staffing and the reams of supplies serving hundreds of daily users means we have exceeded our budget. We gratefully accept monetary and supply donations to support the full range of costs of the Warming Center.
I am grateful for the exhaustion, stress, laughter, love and healing that the Warming Center has brought us all this season. I am grateful for the visibility the Warming Center brings to this vital issue, and appreciate the outpouring of support we have received from our neighbors and the community as a whole. This is going to take all of us and I'm honored to count the shelter family IN as part of the solution. <3 <3 <3
Meg Martin, MSW, MHP, is the Shelter Program Director for The Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter.