Volunteers count homeless

Census: Estimate helps determine amount of federal, state aid for regional agencies

January 29, 2010 

OLYMPIA - About 80 volunteers were expected to hike into muddy ravines in the morning, walk the downtown streets at night and head into local shelters and social-service agencies to count the homeless Thursday.

Their efforts were part of the seventh annual Thurston County Homeless Census. It helps determine the amount of federal and state aid that local agencies get, said Anna Schlecht, a housing specialist for the city of Olympia, which organized the count.

“We want this to be very comprehensive, and we want it to be countywide,” Schlecht said. New this year, the city planned to count young people on the street, a number that might have been under-reported in past years.

Schlecht said that by late afternoon Thursday, counting teams were finding more active homeless camps but fewer people living in them.

“Many of the campsites that were found were pretty well-organized,” she said. “These appear to be people ... fully functioning but down on their luck and trying to better themselves.”

The number of volunteers counting people was at least double the number last year, and they were eager to help. Still, only a portion of the county’s homeless were expected to be counted. Too many live deep in the woods and would require far more volunteers to count.

For example, the count did not include Capitol State Forest, a known home to dozens, if not hundreds, of homeless people.

Teams of six counters each headed into the woods early Thursday morning after a brief orientation at Drexel House, a home for the homeless on Devoe Street in Olympia.

Volunteers fanned out across the city to known locations for camps – such as along the Woodland Trail in east Olympia and Grass Lake Park on Olympia’s west side. They looked for signs of life, such as a muddy trail. They climbed in and out of ravines, looking for tents and tarps.

One of the homeless residents they counted is Kenneth Thomsen, 21. Riding on the Woodland Trail with his possessions in a carry-on bag balanced on his bicycle, he stopped a moment to talk.

Thomsen, originally from Centralia, said he has been homeless since his father kicked him out of the house when he was 11. He estimated that between 300 and 400 people lived in the nearby woods.

“Every day, there’s at least three new people here,” he said.

Homeless people weren’t just counted; they were surveyed to find out why they became homeless. A final count is due to the state by March 30, Schlecht said.

Last year’s count found 1,016 homeless people in Thurston County, a figure that rises to 1,145 when factoring in people who stay with friends and relatives and lack a permanent address.

Volunteers said they were changed by the experience.

“I had expected to be intimidated or afraid, and that wasn’t my experience at all,” said Martha Hankins, who volunteered with her son, August Mattson.

“The ingenuity” of the camps, added Mattson, “was really impressive.”

“I want to do it again,” Hankins said.

Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869

mbatcheldor@theolympian.com

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