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A modest proposal

Because of our topsy turvy economy and the rise of e-commerce Olympia now has a number of empty Big Box stores. One glaring example is the empty Toys R Us store with a huge parking lot sitting all alone on Cooper Point road. We could be using buildings like these to get people into warm, dry, safe housing on a temporary basis. Timely access to a stable, orderly place to live is key to preventing someone from becoming a “homeless person.”

This building on Cooper Point Road was vacated by the Toys R Us company a few years ago and now sits empty at the head of an easily accessible and extensive parking lot.Mike Pelly
This building on Cooper Point Road was vacated by the Toys R Us company a few years ago and now sits empty at the head of an easily accessible and extensive parking lot.

Why not turn Toys R Us into temporary housing for people living outside, in cars—or “camping” behind fences and in church parking lots? Why is it thinkable to create “sanctioned tent camps” but not to make use of empty buildings?

The transformation of a place like the Toys R Us building could be carried out in a few months if all city agencies got behind it. We learned recently (via the internet) that the Chinese built a large hospital in 10 days to deal with the coronavirus! Olympia can certainly do as well! To entice (absentee?) owners to lease their property, the city could provide a tax break —something more justifiable than the 8-year exemption given to developers for high-end apartments downtown (!)

Members of the faith community and others—including the unhoused—might willingly volunteer to help construct and staff the site. Residents could form their own management teams. Set up interior partitions for privacy and to create an area for families with kids. Install a couple of simple kitchens for food prep—and a communal commons for eating. Set up a job-search room with phones, computers, internet access and charging stations. These buildings are located in commercial areas near bus routes that would give residents easier access to job interviews and kids to school.

Olympia’s population of homeless people grows every year. Programs like Rapid Rehousing have been successful in other cities. It’s time Olympia, our Capitol city, steps up to the plate. We should be beyond “sanctioned tent camps” periodically raided by the police.

Mike Pelly presented this idea to Olympia City Council members at a recent meeting.

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