OLYMPIA - About 200 volunteers took to the woods, the streets and other areas Thursday to count homeless people, part of the annual Thurston County Homeless Census.
Though the final numbers aren’t expected until March, the anecdotal situation was that volunteers are finding fewer homeless people in the woods, perhaps due to city of Olympia sweeps last spring that cleared camps along the Woodland Trail and in Grass Lake Refuge.
The team that scoured the Grass Lake Area found no homeless people.
“I’m hearing the teams (of volunteers) had trouble finding folks, which is strange, because I’ve heard about large encampments from homeless people I know,” said census organizer Anna Schlecht. “I think they’re hiding better.”
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While that addressed residents’ concerns about homeless people living in the woods, it might have also made it more difficult for social services to quantify the homeless problem.
Schlecht, also housing program manager for the city of Olympia, said the number of homeless counted helps determine qualification for government social service grants.
Schlecht said one volunteer group came upon a camp with probably two dozen people, but none of them would come out of tents to be counted. “I imagine they will relocate themselves tomorrow,” she said.
In the past, homeless people have been receptive to the program.
Some homeless people are concerned that by talking to census takers, they will be reported and their camps will be cleared. Schlecht told volunteers that was not the case, and had them sign confidentiality agreements before counting.
Volunteer Phil Owen, who works for Bread and Roses, criticized the police raids. “It doesn’t actually get them into housing,” he said. He said it just moves homeless people around, where they will annoy another set of neighbors. “It’s a hardship for them.”
Last year’s census found 976 homeless people throughout Thurston County, a number that increased to 1,339 when factoring in people staying with friends and family members and those incarcerated who would be released to homelessness. The count was substantially higher than the 441 counted in 2006.
A bellwether count of homeless students 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 previous year.
However, that represents students surveyed year-long, not the point-in-time count that the census does, Owen said.
Homeless people aren’t just counted; they’re surveyed on why they became homeless. The data is used to help determine where to focus social-service dollars.
Schlecht said she will assemble focus groups made of faith, business and school members to analyze the data.
Besides gleaning useful statistics, the event is also a way to bring groups together to help the community, Schlecht said. The number of volunteers was sharply up this year, thanks in part to Schlecht’s efforts to recruit volunteers from more faith communities.
One of those participating this year was South Sound Foursquare Church in Tumwater, which sent a team of volunteers to count the Grass Lakes area. Church Administrator Brad Morrill asked that the volunteers “greet ’em with love,” and prayed before setting out.
They climbed up and down muddy ravines and through trails that criscrossed much of the 171-acre refuge.
Though the group didn’t find any campers, they found camps.
Social-service leaders are bracing for more homelessness with more cuts coming at the state level.
Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869 firstname.lastname@example.org