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Census results show dip in county’s homeless population. Advocates aren’t convinced.

Taking count of South Sound homeless

Census workers and city officials search forests, hidden properties and makeshift campsites throughout Olympia and Tumwater for the annual homeless census.
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Census workers and city officials search forests, hidden properties and makeshift campsites throughout Olympia and Tumwater for the annual homeless census.

Thurston County’s homeless census conducted one day back in January counted 800 people living outdoors, in emergency shelters and transitional housing, down slightly from the number of people counted a year earlier.

State-certified results showed 394 people living in tents, vehicles and otherwise unsheltered. Another 236 people were staying in emergency shelters, while 170 people were in transitional housing.

Anna Schlecht, Olympia’s community service programs manager who helped organized the countywide census, said it likely missed people.

“The number 394 seems incredibly low,” she said. “You could count about 400 people just driving from one end of downtown (Olympia) to the other.”

She noted that census workers reported that many people declined to give their names during the census, which meant they were not counted.

The 2018 census found 835 homeless people, including 333 in emergency shelters. Schlecht said the decline this year was partly because one shelter where people were counted last year did not participate, while another is undergoing renovations and had fewer beds.

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The results come as local governments work to address homelessness. Olympia, which opened a sanctioned homeless camp, a tiny home village and funded shelter expansions in the past year, is now working on a long-term response plan.

Thurston County, meanwhile, has proposed opening a sanctioned campsite on Carpenter Road near Lacey.

Advocates cautioned against reading too much into this year’s results.

“We are moving in the right direction, but our hope is that it’s still seen we have a lot more to do,” said Tye Gundel, co-founder of the local group Just Housing, adding she doesn’t think the homeless population has declined.

Last year, Just Housing worked with census organizers to count people living in unsanctioned camps. This year, Just Housing did not have an official role, she said, though some members worked as volunteers.

Phil Owen is executive director at the nonprofit SideWalk, which refers homeless adults in Thurston County to more than a dozen housing and shelter programs. He said reducing homelessness will depend on housing inventory increasing and rental prices stabilizing.

“So far our community is not succeeding in a big way in doing either,” he said. “Given the way that rental prices are going, I’m expecting homelessness to grow.”

A full report on census results with demographics on those surveyed is expected in the coming weeks.

Follow more of our reporting on Homelessness in Thurston County

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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.
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