About 200 volunteers searched for homeless people Jan. 27 as part of the annual Thurston County Homeless Census. The data collected each year help determine how much federal grant support for social service programs targeting the homeless will be available in South Sound.
While the final numbers won’t be tallied for a few weeks, anecdotal information suggests the number of contacts during the field census work was way down from last year when some 1,339 homeless people were counted.
No one is suggesting that the number of homeless people has suddenly diminished, especially in light of the high unemployment rates, home foreclosures, bankruptcies and other dismal economic indicators still unacceptably high from the Great Recession.
So what gives?
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It’s possible that some of the high-profile attempts in recent months to break up homeless encampments in Olympia and the surrounding environs have driven homeless people deeper into the woods.
In the past, most of the homeless people encountered by the volunteer census takers willingly answered questions about how long they’ve been homeless, how they became homeless and other basic demographic information. This isn’t Big Brother invading someone’s privacy. These are good-faith efforts to help get an accurate picture of the homeless community so social service agencies can serve it better.
But in another disturbing trend, this year’s homeless were less willing to divulge information or even talk to the census takers. In one case, volunteers came across a camp with about two dozen homeless people, but they refused to come out of their tents to talk.
It all points to a growing distrust of authority by homeless people, who probably fear that the more they share with the census takers, the more likely they will be rousted from their camps.
Advocates for the homeless said the lack of success of this year’s census illustrates the negative effect that the police raids have had on those down and out without a safe place to sleep.
“It doesn’t actually get them into housing,” said Bread and Roses volunteer Phil Owen. The camps just keep moving around, annoying new sets of neighbors.
Owen is right. Breaking up homeless camps does nothing to solve the problems, especially when there isn’t enough emergency shelter available for homeless people to go.
South Sound is no different than any other community in the country. Homelessness is a chronic, societal problem, too often ignored by government and too often shifted to nonprofit and faith-based groups to do the best they can with limited resources.
Unfortunately, keeping the homeless out of sight makes it easier to keep their problems out of mind.