Organizers hope the 2015 Thurston County Homeless Census will continue to show a downward trend in the number of homeless people.
The annual census began Thursday and runs through Saturday with help from more than 120 volunteers.
Census coordinator Anna Schlecht said this year’s final results should be available by mid-March — and she expects to see a lower number than last year’s count of 599 homeless people.
As Schlecht has learned over the years, the biggest challenge is finding homeless people who don’t want to be found. She recalled how in the past, some homeless people have abandoned camps after contact with census volunteers. Residents of these camps are reluctant to participate in the census and often go uncounted.
“Our goal is to create a welcoming environment so that the homeless come to us,” said Schlecht, noting that several census volunteers are homeless themselves. “It brings people together literally from all walks of life.”
One welcoming environment was the first Youth Count event, held Thursday at the Artesian Commons in downtown Olympia. The park includes the historic artesian well and has become an established gathering spot for young people on the streets.
Youth Count was seen as a “magnet event” for engaging homeless youth and increasing the accuracy of the census, said Keelye Marineau of Community Youth Services, the lead organizing agency. CYS serves about 40 young homeless people a day at its drop-in center and connects them with resources such as warm food, clothing and case management.
Marineau also noted the effort to make Youth Count an LGBT-friendly event. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates 40 percent of homeless youths served by agencies identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender — and their homelessness is commonly attributed to family conflict.
“This is exactly what the well can be,” Marineau said Thursday as she admired the early afternoon crowd of more than 100 people, many of whom ate hotdogs and waited for live music to start. “This is a fun celebration for young people in the space where they already hang out.”
This year, a handful of “Homeless Connect” events are doubling as census stations while providing outreach such as food and shelter referrals. Two such events were held Thursday in Rochester and Yelm, both of which have different demographics when it comes to the homeless.
“In rural areas, we know it’s going to be more families,” said Theresa Slusher, event coordinator who worked at both sites Thursday.
Rochester’s Homeless Connect event was held next to ROOF Community Services, which houses a food bank that serves 650 families a month.
Kellie McNelly, executive director of ROOF, helped connect nine individuals with housing needs Thursday. One of those people was a woman currently living with her disabled son in a trailer that has a broken window. Some people were able to get flu shots and a blood pressure checkup, while one homeless man consulted with a doctor about his diabetes.
Whereas homeless people in urban areas tend to live on the streets, homeless people in rural areas are more likely to live in motorhomes without adequate heating, for example. Sometimes multiple families will crowd into one house.
“Our homeless look a lot different from the city’s homeless,” McNelly said, noting the need for more outreach in rural areas.
Coinciding with the Homeless Connect event was a food drive by Rochester area students. Rochester Primary School finished as the biggest donor with 4,646 pounds and delivered the goods Thursday to the food bank.
According to the county, the top causes of homelessness include job loss, family crisis, substance abuse and mental illness, with many homeless people experiencing these conditions concurrently.