Submitted by Olympia Downtown Alliance
Downtown Olympia is full of iconic imagery like the Port’s walkable waterfront, historic Capitol dome, artisanal Olympia Farmers Market, shops, murals, and statuary. These draw in visitors from across the region. The Olympia Downtown Alliance’s key goals support and welcome travelers, businesses, legislators, and families through advocacy, business assistance, imagemaking, and keeping the city’s hub vibrant, clean, and safe.
The Alliance builds partnerships with local businesses, groups, and organizations to do so. Recently they funded a full-time Downtown Maintenance Worker as well as partnering with Valeo, a Tacoma-based non-profit committed to helping houseless individuals re-enter the workforce. This forms a two-way street involving a Work Exchange (WEX) program and providing targeted projects for Valeo work crews.
Todd Cutts, the Alliance’s Executive Director, explains that for the first time in 2022, they employed this new downtown maintenance worker. Five days a week, these workers focus on “keeping downtown looking clean and welcoming for visitors to downtown,” says Cutts. “This entails blowing sidewalks, picking up litter, pulling weeds, wiping down fixtures like trash cans and street poles, and cleaning up graffiti and stickers. Soon, we will begin pressure washing sidewalks.”
The Valeo union is truly symbiotic. “Through the partnership, the Alliance helps to prioritize areas in need of cleaning downtown by Valeo’s work crew,” explains Cutts. “The partnership also provides an internship for a Valeo employee with the Alliance. This intern works with the Downtown Maintenance Worker to add capacity to the organization’s efforts to support a clean downtown. The Alliance appreciates the opportunity this partnership affords to help individuals experiencing homelessness to find a path forward by re-entering the workforce, gaining job experience, and learning new skills.”
Alliance Operations Supervisor Kyle Nicholas is supervising the new Valeo intern. “It’s been the honor of a lifetime to continue working with our Valeo partners, and it just keeps getting better,” he says. “These compassionate programs are needed to give Olympia’s houseless community their dignity and confidence back so they can re-enter the workforce and actually have a chance at reclaiming their lives.”
Sherri Jensen, Executive Director of Valeo, says the day-to-day team has “a beautiful impact through these experiences. The people providing our services have been there and walked the walk.” Their organization has also partnered with the Olympia Film Society, Thurston County Food Bank, Capital Recovery Center, GRuB, HeartStrides Therapeutic Horsemanship, and the Salvation Army, to name a few. Read more or consider donating to their work ending homelessness.
“Perhaps the most exciting observation,” continues Nicholas, “is seeing how our current WEX intern is inspiring so many other locals to go and try out Valeo’s work-first approach towards tackling this complex issue.“
Jeannie House is the Strategic Manager for Special Initiatives at the Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council. She describes the J2J pilot program as one which “connects Olympia’s unhoused residents with career development, employment, and training opportunities. The J2J project builds upon the city’s One Community Plan’s response to homelessness. It is designed to inspire hope, offer real opportunities for work experience and skill gain, and stimulate community support by demonstrating commitment by unhoused neighbors to assume responsibility for their environment and invest in their community. To ensure engagement and buy-in from our unhoused community residents, early engagement of the residents will help shape program elements and facilitate ownership of the J2J initiative.”
PacMtn, according to House, partnered with Valeo because of their extensive “experience in project management, career coaching and mentoring, knowledge of the public workforce development and homeless services systems, skills in partner and stakeholder engagement, and a passion for improving the lives of Olympia’s unhoused residents while expanding the city’s talent pool.”
“The partnership with Valeo works,” says House, “because the involved organizations bring many types of experience and strengths to this project. Referrals are made via local community-based organizations (CBO’s) that assist unhoused individuals like Catholic Community Services (CCS), Community Youth Services (CYS), and Low Income House Institute (LIHI). Some people looking for help even refer themselves to the program. Valeo staff assist the residents with any barrier removal such as identification required for an I-9, employment, and other support services for needs that may arise.”
This means program participants earn job experience, reduce hiring barriers, and come with established references. But that’s not all. “J2J allows residents to earn money by completing paid work experience in a program called Hire Crew, which is phase one of the project,” says House. “Phase two consist of a paid work experience with a local employer or non-profit. Phase three is about transitioning into unsubsidized employment. Associated staff leverage other workforce system programs and services into the long-term, resulting in longer-term support in reentering the workforce. These three tiers allow staff to assist the resident in reentering the workforce and working through any issues.”
The City of Olympia’s Economic Development Director, Mike Reid, understands how powerful partnerships like these truly are. “With many of our complex challenges, they are often too large for any single entity to tackle and resolve solely on their own,” says Reid. “When we find ways to partner across the public, nonprofit, and private sector to address these complex challenges, I think we often find the best results because of the broad nature of skills and resources we each bring to the table.”
“The City of Olympia hopes to see a positive impact made in our residents’ lives that leads to greater opportunities and positive growth,” says Reid. “We know that employment opportunities exist throughout our community, but getting back into the workforce can be challenging for some. Too often, we hear things like ‘people just need to lift themselves up by the bootstraps,’ but the reality is in some instances, there are no bootstraps nor boots to be lifted up by. Our intention with this effort is to help restore the skills, confidence, and opportunity for those ready to take the step back into the workforce.”
Resilience and growth come from working together towards a future that benefits everyone. Thanks to support from the Olympia Downtown Alliance, City of Olympia, PacMtn, and Valeo Vocation, a sense of community will soon become as iconic as our leaping salmon, freshly brewed coffee, and smooching statuary.