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United Way of Thurston County: Olympia Summit on Homelessness

Community leaders in Olympia, WA (including the director of the United Way of Thurston County, the Thurston County Housing Coordinator, the director of local interfaith network, a member of the Olympia City Council, and a developer and downtown business owner) wanted to get the community “unstuck” with respect to how it addresses the complex challenge of homelessness. The issue had become highly polarized in the community and there wasn’t a forum for creating shared understanding, listening, building trust, and exploring the system in all its inherent complexity so that it could move out of the limited cycle that it had become caught in and real and lasting solutions could emerge.  

The Athena group facilitated a series of meetings with a small group of community leaders to try and reach a high level of shared clarity regarding the need for and purpose of a generative, multi-stakeholder community conversation on homelessness built around Participatory Leadership principles and methods.  This was followed by the day and a half long summit on homelessness where participants engaged deeply around the question, How can our community respond to the homelessness issue in a healthy, compassionate way that will transform the status quo and lead to wise actions? Over 40 people participated in the summit. They represented service providers, law enforcement, downtown business owners, developers, elected officials, funders, and individuals who previously experienced homelessness.

Deliverables included a

  • Comprehensive summary (or Harvest) document, which has been distributed widely throughout the community.  

  • Olympia Homelessness Leadership Circle Facebook page. 

  • Two large format graphic recording summaries that will be publicly displayed in prominent locations in and around Olympia in the coming year. 

  • The first two of a series of articles focusing on insights and actions emerging from the summit have been published in the local newspaper Works in Progress.

The summit resulted in a more open and civil way of working together, greater clarity around the community's collective accomplishments, and an improved understanding of the kinds of leadership that it will take to address the complex nature of the challenge. Early in the summit, attendees co-developed a set of powerful principles that would guide the way stakeholders would meet and work together going forward. Through multiple small group table conversations, the group was able to come to an unprecedented level of shared understanding of both the upstream causes of homelessness and the range of existing downstream community-level responses. They also explored in detail the places that the community tends to get stuck and that need a different kind of leadership or innovation. Significantly, they identified several places of possibility for the future.

The first tangible action that emerged from conversations that took place during the summit is an initiative to begin an honest conversation among the business community and street community. This will be a meeting of 4-5 downtown business owners and 4-5 individuals that are either experiencing homelessness or are potentially on the brink of being homeless. The meeting will be casual and will be facilitated around a purposeful question along the lines of “how can we encourage healthy economic activity downtown and embrace human diversity at the same time?” Additionally, the original group of conveners has continued to meet monthly to plan future actions.