Thurston County homeless census organizer: ‘We need to know who’s homeless and why’

Rick Holle and volunteer Joy Nguyen made it through the easy questions — name? date of birth? — before getting to what can be the hardest question on the homeless census questionnaire.

“What caused my homelessness?” Holle, 58, repeated the question. “This last time?”

Holle, who had been homeless before, left an apartment in Tumwater three years ago after he and his girlfriend broke up and he couldn’t afford the rent. He has been camping since then near the Olympia city limits.

“Now I’m back out here, doing it again. And I’m too old to do it,” he told Nguyen, who checked the box marked “eviction/loss of housing.”

Thursday was Thurston County’s annual homeless census, when local government workers and volunteers try to find out how many people are homeless and why, surveying people in camps, shelters, public libraries and elsewhere.

Events in Olympia and Rochester offered free meals, medical services and haircuts as a way to bring people in the door. At the Providence Community Care Center in downtown Olympia — which is where Nguyen met Holle — volunteers handed out shopping bags stuffed with blankets, tarps, snack bars and other goods.

“This year more than ever we need to know who’s homeless and why,” said Anna Schlecht, Olympia’s community service programs manager who coordinated the countywide census.

That’s because solutions to end homelessness depend on the causes, and census results should be a valuable tool as local leaders try to address the problem. For instance, Schlecht said, someone who became homeless after they lost their job would benefit more from rental assistance or job training than permanent supportive housing designed for someone who is chronically homeless.

The county’s census traditionally underestimates the homeless population, since some people don’t want to be found or don’t trust the people asking the questions. Last year’s census counted about 830 people living outside, in cars, in shelters or transitional housing.

Since then, hundreds of tents have gone up within a few blocks in downtown Olympia. The city declared homelessness a public health emergency in July, a month after the county declared it a public health crisis.

“The level of visible homelessness has skyrocketed,” said Schlecht, who expects this year’s number will be larger than last year’s. “Just the fact that we have so many highly visible people camping downtown, and we still have folk in the Jungle (camp) and near Wheeler (Avenue Southeast), and that’s just our city, just our downtown.”

While downtown Olympia had plenty of people to survey, in Tumwater the process was more “search and find,” said City Administrator John Doan, who led a team that toured the south end of that city Thursday morning.

While census workers conducted formal surveys, Tumwater officials went along to take notes on how many people they encountered and where. One of the goals in Tumwater’s affordable housing and homeless action plan its City Council adopted last year is to better understand the extent of poverty there and use data to direct city spending.

Doan’s group didn’t find anyone — he has heard of people camping in Tumwater and spending their days in downtown Olympia — but it did find signs people had been camping in a wooded area along Interstate 5, in a car next to a Toyota dealership, and in RVs near an industrial park south of 93rd Avenue Southwest.

“We’ll take, frankly, whatever information we can get,” Doan said.

Census results are expected to be released in the spring.

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Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.