Where did you stay last night?
That was a key question in the 2016 Thurston County homeless census, conducted Thursday. Nearly 140 volunteers spent the day talking to homeless people and gathering data that will help determine the best way to help people who live on the streets.
On her first night of homelessness, Christina Bruce slept outside next to a trash bin at a fast food restaurant.
Now, Bruce, 19, has been homeless for about five months, after a turbulent experience in the foster care system. She stays at Rosie’s Place, a shelter operated by Community Youth Services in Olympia for young adults.
She chose to participate in the census Thursday because of its potential to make life better for the homeless — whether that means having a safe place to sleep or finding treatment for addiction.
“I believe in anything that’s going to help the homeless,” said Bruce, who had another suggestion. “I would like to see a 24-hour shelter. If we had a 24-hour shelter, there would not be as many people on the streets.”
This year’s census, called I Count Thurston, began before sunrise and got off to a rainy start. The county hired Olympia-based ACR Business Consulting to conduct the census and create a new 10-year strategy to reduce homelessness. Results will be available in late March or early April.
One goal was to minimize any invasiveness by meeting the homeless in common daytime gathering spots, said lead coordinator Rachel Revisky. Volunteers avoided encampments in the woods, not just to respect privacy, but for safety reasons, she said. She said there were rumors of several booby traps near the encampment sites.
In addition, a handful of “rovers” drove around in search of any visible homeless people on the streets.
Later Thursday, volunteers surveyed people during an event at the Artesian Commons in downtown Olympia that included music, coffee, food and free clothing. The park is a popular gathering place for the street community.
Volunteers also met with dozens of people who packed First Christian Church, one of three faith communities in downtown Olympia that serve as temporary daytime warming centers in winter.
Among those at the warming center was 62-year-old David Rodriguez, who is protective of his street family. While he agreed to participate in the census, Rodriguez doubts it will solve problems the way a new shelter could.
The best way to connect with the street community, he said, is to meet each person on a one-to-one basis and make them feel like more than just a number on a piece of paper.
“It could happen to anybody,” Rodriguez said of homelessness. “That’s life. It has its turns and it has its bumps.”
Volunteers who stood outside the Union Gospel Mission early Thursday had to let each rain-soaked survey dry in the backseat of a car. However, not everyone was open to participating. When one volunteer asked a man whether he’d like to take a survey on homelessness, he replied, “It sucks. Write that down,” before walking inside the mission.
Volunteers and organizers recognize that the census cannot count every homeless person — and that some homeless people just don’t want to be counted.
But along with helping service providers determine the level of need in the community, the census can provide fodder for tough conversations about the homeless, addiction and mental illness.
“It’s really highlighted the need to just get people housed and safe,” said Julie Montgomery, a census volunteer. “It’s not about serving the most people. It’s about serving the most vulnerable.”
Dana Alder, breakfast cook at the Salvation Army in Olympia, made pancakes for those who came through the door early Thursday morning. He expected to serve 30 to 45 people, but said the final number depended on the weather. As he put it, staying dry seems to be a better option than a free breakfast.
Alder has been cooking at the Salvation Army for nearly seven years, but the role goes beyond food. Sometimes he needs to be a counselor and referee for the homeless population he serves.
“You have to have compassion. You have to be very aware of people’s situation,” said Alder as he poured thick pancake batter on the hot griddle. “I can see that what I’m doing is making a difference.”
From 2006 to 2015, the county tracked the homeless with its Point-in-Time census as part of a statewide effort to cut homelessness in half. Although the latter goal wasn’t achieved, the effort led to more insight on the main causes of homelessness such as job loss, family break-up and health problems.
According to data, the 2015 census counted 476 homeless people in Thurston County, compared to 441 people in 2006 when the census started. In between those years, the count was highest in 2010 with 976 homeless people.