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Transforming Olympia’s Mitigation Site with new structures and systems

Micro housing for macro impact

Aaron Sauerhoff, Project Manager for micro home upgrade to Olympia’s Mitigation Site.

On a given Tuesday morning last month, anyone traveling on or around Franklin Street in downtown Olympia would have beheld a curious spectacle. A two-forklift relay was running colorful shed-type buildings five or so blocks from the Port of Olympia to the somewhat infamous lot north of the Transit Center known as the “Mitigation Site.”

A roof over your head is a big deal

Many in Olympia go about their lives in quiet non-awareness of the City-sanctioned encampment while others harbor a nagging curiosity about what transpires behind the linked fence. Some maintain an open contempt for this epicenter of transition that 80 people call “home.”

There’s a big change in the works: the site is undergoing an upgrade to resilient, insulated, locking ‘micro-homes.’ Sixty plywood structures 8 ft x 8 ft, with a floor and a roof, as well as windows and doors, are replacing the collection of tents (and three shipping container units) that along with two lit hygiene trailers, for several years filled the site.

These new solid structures (pictured here) will provide safety, warmth, security, and privacy, as well as the opportunity for more organization. This means that occupants of the site can re-center and re-build…from whatever they’ve faced and undergone.

Growing numbers of people live without shelter

In 2020, census numbers showed well over half a million people nationally without shelter on any given night. Out of those, Washington state claimed 23,000 and Olympia itself almost a thousand.

Completed micro homes destined for placement at Mitigation Site.

Hardly a simple issue to understand and respond to, though any conversation about “homelessness” is likely to contain exclamations and resolutions as to what could cause this phenomenon, especially in a society that so proudly boasts independence and prosperity.

Thurston County is among the most responsive municipalities nationwide, with a Five-Year Homeless Response Plan coordinated by the Regional Housing Council, as represented by residents of Lacey, Tumwater, Olympia, and Yelm.

Yet we keep seeing extreme behavior and ways of life cropping up in our midst. Statewide, the Low Income Housing Alliance coordinates with over 5,000 organizations that respond to and engage with homelessness issues. Institutions like Familiar Faces, Community Action Council and various task forces all provide assistance to ‘health and economic refugees’ to stabilize themselves and orient better toward self-sufficiency.

Creating solutions that work as we wait for housing that’s affordable at a low income

Why is it now normal for some people to avoid walking around Capitol Lake or venturing too deeply downtown because they fear harassment, overwhelming panhandling or physical danger?

“We have a lot of institutions doing a lot of things around these issues, but they just don’t connect very well,” says one former State worker who’s well-versed in the social and political climate in Olympia. “There is a great need for [accessible] housing, and that falls on the cities to codify and make room for it and not just big real estate development.”

Even as we face criticism for the failure to provide permanent housing, the Mitigation Site is committed to stepping up not only its structures but the agreements and systems of accountability necessary to transition through it.

Catholic Community Services manages the Mitigation Site to ensure round-the-clock safety for those onsite. The former site manager has described… those coming through the site as “often traumatized; some maybe never having experienced real security, or not wanting traditional housing at all and trying to find their way. It’d be great to just provide everyone a place but without that, we’ve got to create solutions that work to figure out what’s best for them.”

Steps that can lead from the street to permanent (affordable) housing

Catholic Community Services has managed the Mitigation Site since it took over from Union Gospel Mission in March, 2020. Once the decision was made to place a case worker onsite, the number of people starting the process to actual housing has now entered double digits.

A representative of CCS described the transition as, “wanting to establish basic safety first and foremost.” As part of these actions to improve the site, there will be more collaboration with supportive services. The goal is to see a higher rate of people moving from the street to micro-houses; into appropriate counseling and guidance and ultimately to permanent housing.

How this all came about

The contract to transform this shelter site was an intersectional agreement between public and private sectors. The City of Olympia contracted design and build firm Earth Homes LLC to oversee and organize the build, including merging labor efforts of volunteers and people from the homeless community to construct the 60 shelter units. $12,000 was allocated for compensating a handful of workers from the Mitigation Site. Fundraising efforts are underway to make up the difference in the now-depleted “Homeless Employment Program” budget.

“The original budget for the project was $127,000, contributed by Thurston County, Providence Foundation, the City of Olympia and private donors. The final budget for the micro-homes effort is projected to be $207,000—extended in part by materials delays that dictated more staffing,” says Outreach Coordinator, Rabi Verdante of the Earth Homes crew.

Positive developments already emerging

One of the paid workers, “Big Steve,” has reported a sense of renewal in his time working on the shelters, and foresees positive changes in others at the camp as final delivery on May 27 came into view. “Just getting to sleep off the ground and start your day that much higher feels like you actually matter,” he mused. “You don’t have to fight just to want to do something with your day in the morning.”

Steve is also a peer counselor to fellow Mitigation ‘participants’ and deals with a lot of burdensome external influences on people inside the gate. “It would be great if other people around the site could go somewhere so there are less problems coming in and people could work on themselves.”

With about an eighth of the recently-passed state budget allocated toward Social and Health Services, forging connections between supportive alliances, and a balanced city plan to make housing accessible for all residents, we hold out hope that 2021 census numbers will report more people mattering.

For more information, visit the Micro-Housing Project.


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