Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza has extended an idea to county officials looking to solve the ever-increasing homelessness problem — use the old county jail as an existing mitigation site.
The real question officials have is whether it would provide an adequate space for services? The answer is probably not.
Over the last month, Scott Bannister, a Yelm resident, has been attending city and county government sessions attempting to get Snaza’s offer on the move. During the June 25 Thurston County Board of County Commissioners meeting, Bannister said he was even willing to have his own nonprofit take the charge.
“There are families that are homeless. We want for them to be able to stay there and be able to get a shower, get cleaned up and go out and look for a job — better themselves. I know there’s a lot of them that want to, they just don’t have the opportunities,” Bannister said.
In an interview with the Nisqually Valley News, Snaza said the 200-bed facility could provide a great place for people to get food, shower and find services.
“The unfortunate thing is that it was a jail. But my big thing is that it provides a bed, a safe environment. You have the necessities there,” Snaza said. ”The best thing is that it is in the public estate still, it’s not out of sight or out of mind.”
Snaza also voiced disagreement with the way public officials are currently addressing the homelessness issue throughout the county.
Thurston County and other small governments are currently in the early stages of seeing if a homeless mitigation site could be feasible and, if so, what kind of services it would need to provide to the community. According to a report by The Olympian, the county has looked at two sites — a county owned property near Tumwater and a site in Lacey near Martin Way and Carpenter Road Northeast.
About a year ago, the Thurston County Board of Health declared homelessness a public health crisis in the county. Since then, the board and County Manager Ramiro Chavez have worked on developing an emergency resolution on homeless housing and started identifying a potential homeless mitigation site.
Chavez said while they have briefly looked at the possibility of using the old county jail for a site, it’s not in the best shape and a renovation would cost too much.
“It’s extremely expensive to bring it up to a certain level because right now the jail is in complete disrepair,” Chavez said. “It requires a lot of investment.”
The county is also only in the early stages of identifying what the mitigation site needs to be. Before any action can be taken on picking a site or developing plans, the county needs to determine what it is they’d need from a homeless mitigation site.
Funding hasn’t been determined yet for the potential site either.
The idea of using decommissioned jails for homeless services isn’t a foreign concept for counties. Back in 2017 in Skagit County, Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton raised the idea of using the county’s old jail as a homeless shelter, according to a report by the Skagit Valley Herald.
After conversations with city and county officials, County Administrator Tim Holloran came to the conclusion that it would be too expensive — roughly $250 per square foot — to renovate Skagit County’s old jail.
In an interview with the Nisqually Valley News, Thurston County Commissioner Gary Edwards said he would be in favor of building an area for people to rest their heads but he was curious as to the cost to taxpayers.
As far as Bannister and Snaza’s push for the county jail to be used, Edwards said he’s not sure if that effort will go very far.
“The feasibility for doing something at the existing location and having those individuals come and go at will, I don’t think it fits in with the overall plan that needs to be considered,” he said.
Even if Snaza wanted to donate the jail, they’d have to go through the Board of County Commissioners. All decisions regarding facilities usage would have to go through the board, Chavez said.