Activists with a group called Oly Housing Now have occupied the lobby and 17 rooms of the Red Lion Hotel in downtown Olympia.

Shortly before noon on Sunday, about 35 members of the group gathered in the lobby and outside the hotel on Capitol Way across from Sylvester Park, which used to be known as the Governor Hotel.

Organizer Emma Deitz says they purchased 17 hotel rooms for homeless people from nearby encampments and plan to stay until the county commits funds for permanent housing.

The concierge desk was empty when The Olympian arrived around noon and no employees were visible.

Several organizers brought boxes of paper towels and ramen upstairs. About a dozen people were sitting in chairs looking at their phones and reading zines, one of which was titled “It’s Vacant, Take It!”

An Olympia Police Department SUV was parked in a lot across the street, but left sometime after 1 P.M.

How it started

Deitz has been volunteering with a group called Olympia Anarchist Mutual Aid that brings supplies like propane heaters, blankets, hand sanitizer, and food to people living in tent encampments at Capitol Lake and on Wheeler Avenue adjacent to Interstate 5. She said that the combination of rain, cold, and rats make conditions there intolerable.

Deitz said Oly Housing Now is a new group with about 40 members that formed for this action.

On Saturday night, Oly Housing Now purchased one night in the hotel rooms and moved 33 unhoused people in, where they plan to stay indefinitely. They want Thurston County to apply for funding that’s being offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to pay for “non-congregate” shelter for people who are 65+ or have pre-existing health conditions that put them at elevated risk for COVID-19 complications — a descriptor that applies to many people who are unhoused.

Olympia Housing Now also released a list of demands for the city of Olympia that include providing sanitation, restrooms, and other “resources to meet the COVID-19 CDC hygiene recommendations.”

The city currently supplies several encampments with port-a-potties and dumpsters.

Another demand is for the city to “increase impact fees on luxury and commercial properties in Olympia’s downtown, as well as building permanent housing for “extremely low-income” people making less than $26,200 per year.

Keylee Marineau, the Homeless Coordinator for Thurston County, says she went to the hotel and talked with organizers Sunday afternoon and says the county is looking into the federal funding program.

“We’re actively pursuing avenues to understand how the homeless-specific funds for FEMA work,” Marineau said.

The Thurston County Public Health Department currently has a “quarantine and isolation facility”, which is a hotel where people can stay temporarily if they test for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results and do not have a safe place to quarantine.

That facility is also a hotel. County officials have not disclosed its name, but said it is not the Red Lion Inn.

Another organizer who goes by the name Tibor said the county’s current actions are inadequate.

“You have to get sick just to get a roof over your head,” he said. “It’s not right.”

A similar occupation of a hotel in Fife in December was organized by a group called Tacoma Housing Now and ended with police in hazmat suits removing more than 40 homeless people who’d been staying in the rooms for close to a week without paying, according to CBS News.

One member of Tacoma Housing Now, who asked to be identified by the name Banshee, cited examples of similar actions in cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Portland.

“There’s a national movement of people being militant about securing housing for the houseless,” Banshee said.

There are already several homeless families staying in the hotel. Family Support Center, a local nonprofit that runs a shelter for homeless families, currently provides special vouchers funded by CARES Act money. Executive Director Trish Gregory confirmed over text that the organization has families staying at several local hotels, including the Red Lion Inn.

What’s going on inside

In his room on the fourth floor, a man with a curly mohawk named Kristopher Mallotte points out the window towards Capitol Lake at the encampment where he sleeps most nights.

Mallotte has been homeless on and off since he was 13 years-old.

He says Deitz approached him about the idea, and it sounded like it could raise awareness to spur officials to act.

“I imagine this will pose enough of an eyesore for us to say hey, you want us out of here, give us another building to live in,” Mallotte said.

He’s prepared to stay here and support Deitz and the occupation as long as the organizers think is necessary.

“She seems to care,” he said.

This story will be updated as new information becomes available.

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