David Lee and his 7-year-old rescue dog, Keena, are impressed by Olympia.
During the annual homeless count Thursday, the Oregon native said Olympia has been the most welcoming and supportive city he has visited so far along the Interstate 5 corridor.
“This is the safest place I’ve been,” said Lee, who has established a friendly rapport with the local street community during his month in town. “This place is a godsend.”
For the second year, the I Count Thurston census — part of the statewide Point-In-Time Count of the homeless — was led by Olympia-based ACR Business Consulting.
ACR owner Aaron Rodriguez said the survey results will be available next month to help social service agencies determine their outreach efforts and federal funding requests. A goal of this year’s census was to specifically count homeless youths and adults in urban as well as rural areas, Rodriguez said.
Census organizers set up Thursday’s main operation at the Interfaith Works Warming Center at 408 Olympia Ave. NE in downtown Olympia. Other census events were held at Rosie’s Place, the Lacey Veterans Service Hub, Rainier Emergency Food Center, ROOF Community Services at the Rochester Community Center, Yelm Lions Club’s Carlson Cabin, and The Vault in Tenino.
Volunteers presented a survey to attendees that asked for basic background details along with information about housing and financial circumstances. Other questions asked which resources were most needed — such as health and dental care, for example, or access to showers and counselors.
Free snacks, coffee, clothing, haircuts and other services were available along with information on health and dental care. Volunteers from Deschutes River Cyclery repaired several bikes, for example, while other volunteers passed out pet food.
At least one volunteer found a common thread among the people who were surveyed.
“Nobody is saying they’re homeless by choice,” said Stephanie Reinauer, who joined several volunteers Thursday from the state Department of Commerce’s housing assistance unit.
The state’s Homeless Housing and Assistance Act requires all counties to conduct an annual homeless count. The state Department of Commerce is responsible for coordinating the entire homeless census among Washington’s 39 counties, then reporting those results to the Legislature and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Longtime Olympia resident Edgar L. Mathis Jr., 61, waited at the warming center for a haircut Thursday morning with his faithful dog, Happy Hippie. Mathis, who has been staying at the Salvation Army, praised the survey as a tool for assisting the homeless with their needs.
“It will help the ones that want to be helped,” he said.
Past census efforts have shown that the top causes for homelessness are job loss, family crisis or break-up, and illness or health problems. In 2016, volunteers counted 579 homeless people during the census. In 2015, volunteers counted 476 homeless people, and in 2014, volunteers counted 576.
At the Lacey Veterans Service Hub, at least 22 military veterans had participated in the survey by midday Thursday, including Korean War veteran Walter Simonsen.
Simonsen served as a medical specialist during the Korean War. He had been living in his car until early last year when Olympia-based nonprofit SideWalk helped him find a place to live. Inspired by the assistance he received, Simonsen now wants to establish a program that helps homeless veterans learn a trade and increase their employability.
“Most of them want to work,” Simonsen said of veterans, regardless of their housing status. “I’m angry. I want to see things get better.”