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New Low-Barrier Shelter Takes Root in Olympia

On Saturday, a new, low-barrier shelter is opening in downtown Olympia. It’s the first of its kind in Washington to allow pets and to have special accommodations for gay, lesbian and transgender people.

Low-level sex offenders will be allowed, there’s no ID requirement, and sobriety isn’t mandatory. “That would be a reason to get asked to leave every other shelter,” said Meg Martin, shelter coordinator. “We are able to provide proper training for our staff and proper supervision to be able to house those folks whether they’re using or not.”  

Allowing pets, not just service animals, to enter the facility is another draw. Martin said many people would rather sleep out in the cold then be separated. “Having an animal is sometimes the strongest therapeutic tool.”

Staff at the Interfaith Overnight Emergency Shelter has put in a lot of work to open before the winter chill. They’ve rehabbed the basement of a church into a 30-bed unisex facility; there are still murals are leftover from when it was a Sunday school and a rainbow above the door.

Martin said shelters are traditionally “very gendered.” But the Interfaith Shelter will be able to provide accommodations for couples and a gender-neutral space for people who identify as LGBTQ.  

The shelter is located in an area that’s experiencing an explosion of development. Just half a block away, an empty mid-century Sears building is being transformed into a bank and brew pub with 19 apartments on top.

Jim Haley, the president of Thurston First Bank, said he’s concerned about the low-barrier model. “If you have someone who has a particular drug dependency that causes them to need cash, my teller is the next thing in line before their next fix, so it becomes very problematic for me,” he said.

He said the shelter’s location doesn’t make sense at a time when the downtown economy is being revitalized. “If people don’t feel secure in the area then they’re not going to want to rent the apartments. They’re not going to want to be downtown.”

Nathan Reilly is the owner of Three Magnets Brew Pub, which will be located in the same building next to the bank. He takes a different stance on the shelter: He thinks it will be good for business.

“By giving people a safe place to stay, it will help the image of downtown and help the safety of these individuals at same time, so it’s a win-win,” Reilly said.  

As workers and volunteers rush to finish before the opening, Martin said some of the complaints she has fielded from the community are systemic of living in an urban hub and not the fault of the homeless. “When I hear that, I hear that the status quo is not working,” Martin said. “What we need in Olympia is not more of the same. It’s something different.”

In Thurston County, homelessness has been decreasing over the last three years. But the amount of high-risk homeless – the population the low-barrier shelter serves – is on the rise. Martin said as the demand increases, the Interfaith Overnight Emergency Shelter is considering expanding its services and remaining open around the clock.