Getting to the root cause of the challenges those in our community who are encountering homelessness and addressing those root causes is what we should be focused on. There are three main challenges people face when encountering homelessness.
1.) I call them "marginally displaced". Typically these members of our community can not afford first and last months rent, deposit, lost their job and need help. Getting these residents the resources they need through a rapid rehousing model is great. We have resources in our community to get these people the resources they need.
2.) Behavioral Health challenges: This makes up about 80% of the population that are encountering homelessness and is really has two separate categories, mental health challenges and substance use disorder. We can address both of these key challenges at once and addressing these issues will fix more than our challenges with people encountering homelessness. The most loving and compassionate thing we as a community can do for these folks is get them to the resources they so desperately need.
3.) We can accomplish this goal by utilizing resources we have in our community. The use of Community court has a 14% repeat offense rate whereas traditional incarceration has a repeat offense rate upward of 50%. This is the path to break cycles of addiction and help people live their most fulfilling live. As a community, we want to help them learn to manage their resources and provide housing for themselves, we want to give them power back over their lives, we want them to be integral members of our community. Behavioral Health challenges contribute to may of the other key issues we are facing in our community, such as violence and vandalism. Addressing this root cause first, will address many other challenges such as crime, violence and vandalism as well as environmental impacts in our community.
Yesterday was the hottest day on record in Olympia. I hope you all stayed safe and cool out there.
I had a decision to make yesterday, do I go for my ride along with Olympia Police Department on the hottest day possible. I then thought, well they are out there protecting and serving, I need to be out there to walk a mile in their shoes on the hottest day in history to gain some perspective. I even wore long sleeves and pants in a move to better understand the challenges the officers were facing wearing a uniform plus all that additional gear. I challenge every current sitting member of our council and every member of our “Re-imagining public safety Working Committee” to do the same and to undergo “Use of Force” and sit in on occasion to OPD training.
What I witnessed yesterday were public servants that care deeply, that have compassion and empathy for those they serve. They want a safe, strong vibrant community where people are free to move about without fear of attacks or harassment. The challenges we face with homelessness in our community is rooted in mental health and drug addiction. We have plenty of some resources, yet lack so many others, so what we have created is an open air asylum in our community our States Capital City.
There is no lack of compassion from me; we need to do better for all of those suffering with mental health and substance abuse disorder. I was reminded of my time in the military where 10% of the folks took up 90% of my time as a leader as we worked with our folks through their challenges and helped them along their path, hopefully through a path of recovery. The same hold true with our police officers; about 10 to 20% of the people we encountered during my time with the officers were repeat offenders. The large majority of responses are people struggling with mental illness and/or substance abuse disorder. Many of the officers already know them by name. Often times people are taken for treatment to St Pete's where there are only 8 beds despite the need to treat a much larger number of people. Those suffering with mental health or substance abuse disorder are put back out on the streets to once again suffer in our streets, without getting supervised long term treatment to address their challenges. It is shameful to say, but it appears to me that it is like a catch and release program, but with human lives. These officers see it every day and it hurts them to know that we are not making any progress in stemming the tide; instead we continue to encourage more to come to our open air asylum. This is evident when the history of offenses from other jurisdictions is seen and you can see their path to the open air asylum of Olympia.
Is this what Olympia wants to be? Is this the strategic vision for our community? That is a question for my constituents. It is not a challenge that should be borne solely by the constituents of Olympia. I believe we need to address substance abuse disorder and mental health with the proper facilities to treat them. This needs to be addressed at the State and Federal level. Many of the opposition will argue that a housing first model is the best option; I would argue that it is like shoving all the dirty toys in your bedroom under the bed. It will be out of sight and out of mind, but we will have done a great disservice to those struggling with the challenges of mental illness and substance abuse disorder.
Through the riots of last year, I heard countless times how we need to re-imagine public safety. How many of you are aware that our city has had a Crisis Response Team, in the Police Department for the last two years? During my ride-along, I got to meet some of the wonderful Crisis Responders they work tirelessly to help those struggling with substance abuse disorder and mental health challenges. It was my impression that many of them are feeling the burnout as our current system continues to fail to support the real needs and challenges. Furthermore, this destroys the narrative we have been hearing that our Police force is fascist and heartless. In my experience, it was anything but and I believe our city council should have supported our Police and brought this to the attention of our community and those that have been so vocal about, what in their estimation is bad policing.
As a retired firefighter, I understand what it is like to continue to see some of the most challenging moments of people’s lives. This can wear and does wear on the mental health of our emergency responders. I am a proponent of ensuring that individual mental health counseling is readily available to our emergency responders, to deal with the challenging events they see every day. This is not to say that any officer I encountered was in any way less, rather that we as a community need to support our emergency responders from a whole person perspective, which includes their mental wellness.
I am not in support of defunding our Police Department. We can always improve how we provide services to our community and I am for continuing to improve how we provide those services. I think we need more police officers on walking patrol to protect our small business downtown and to get those suffering from mental health and substance abuse disorder to the services they need. Did you know that while our population has grown, our force is the same level it was in 1990? In my assessment, last year we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime to address the riots. The irony of the movement to defund police only required more policing to protect the rest of our population from a very violent and vocal minority.
At great peril of offending our non-government agencies and non-profits and as a professional management analyst, I would say that we have not set any Specific Measurable Attainable and Timely (SMART) objectives for the services we are providing. Right now we just measure the number served, in an attempt to gain more government funding, our goal should be to put ourselves out of business, not to perpetuate a system of enabling and dependency. Before we fund programs, we need to ensure that they are not passed on to other jurisdictions (Seattle, Portland and Tacoma) to bolster numbers of “customers” served, let’s start tracking people who return to our services so we can address their challenges and get them to a place where they can live fulfilling and meaningful lives, not continuing to suffer with substance abuse disorder and mental health challenges.
Lastly as a community leader I believe it is important to support our emergency responders when needed and that should have been done last year. One of the key roles of local government is to provide a safe and healthy environment for all of our residents and businesses. If we fail in this endeavor, we will see a loss in employment opportunities, goods and services to those living in our downtown.