The annual Thurston County Homeless Census is Thursday, and volunteers are needed to help count the hundreds of people without homes throughout the county, many of them camping in the woods.
The results of the annual tally, expected to be released in March, help social service providers determine local needs and qualify for state and federal grants. It also ties social service, business and government leaders together in a shared quest to end homelessness.
“We have to find new and innovative ways to provide service and shelter in the face of government cuts,” said Anna Schlecht, housing program manager for the City of Olympia. Schlecht has been organizing the annual census, funded by $25,000 from the Thurston County HOME Consortium. That’s an interjurisdictional group that is funded both federally and by fees on permits and deeds.
Last year’s census found 976 homeless people throughout the county, a number that swelled to 1,339 when people staying with friends and family members and those incarcerated who would be released to homelessness were included. The count was substantially more than the 441 counted in 2006.
There is some hope that the homeless rate might drop this year, based on new data about homeless students, though it’s a mixed bag. The number of homeless students in Thurston County in the 2009-10 school year dropped 8 percent, to 1,164 from 1,269, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. But the number of students living in unsheltered conditions jumped to 184 from 144.
The student count uses different methodology, and the number of homeless students tends to be higher than census statistics because it’s easier to measure children who regularly attend school.
In contrast, the homeless census means tracking down people wherever they are – whether at a social service agency, on the streets or in the woods. To do that requires a platoon of volunteers.
“It’s about five months of solid work,” Schlecht said, “mobilizing about 250 volunteers.”
“That includes about 40 people with agencies that provide shelter or service (that) will directly report,” she said. “That also includes over 200 people from faith communities, business, service organizations, nonprofits and just concerned citizens.”
She said more volunteers are needed to help count people and help out with other events to reach out to the homeless.
“We’re making a diligent effort to do homeless outreach out in the rural areas this year,” Schlecht said. “We’re partnering with faith communities in Yelm to cohost homeless outreach events on Saturday, Jan. 29. (It) involves a meal, clothing distribution, free haircuts, social service referrals.”
One of those volunteers will be Mark Kitabayashi, immediate past president of the Thurston County Realtors Association. He urges people to act.
“You can complain all you want about the homeless,” he said. “To me complaining doesn’t do anything.”