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Census suggests homeless population is declining in Thurston County

Early results from the 2015 Thurston County Homeless Census show some of the lowest numbers in 10 years.

The annual Point-in-Time Census was held Jan. 29-31 as part of an effort to track the local homeless population. Volunteers counted 474 homeless people this year, about a 21 percent decrease from last year’s count of 599. The 2015 count is the lowest number since 2008, when volunteers counted 462 homeless people.

The number of unsheltered homeless people — those sleeping in places such as cars, parks, abandoned buildings and the streets — also declined from 263 last year to 163 in this year’s count.

However, the situation seems to be getting worse for homeless students.

A separate yearlong census of Thurston County schools reported an all-time high of 1,628 homeless students, compared with 1,584 students in last year’s count and 1,123 students in 2013. The latest result represents a nearly 154 percent increase in homeless students since 2006. Unlike the Point-in-Time Census, the school census includes homeless students who are staying with friends and family.

The Point-in-Time census began in 2006 as part of a 10-year statewide effort to reduce homelessness 50 percent by July 2015. A complete report for the 2015 census will be released later this spring.

Census coordinator Anna Schlecht said there is conversation at the county level about taking a different and more cost-effective approach with future census efforts.

“Clearly we haven’t reduced it by half, but we’ve brought it down almost to the point where we began, which is a form of progress,” Schlecht said Monday at a meeting of the Thurston County Housing Task Force. “It’s a very good bookend for the process that has been undertaken up to this point.”

Another notable statistic from this year’s count involves the chronically homeless, defined by the county as people who have been homeless for a year or more, or have had at least four bouts of homelessness in three years.

Schlecht said the number of chronically homeless has dropped from 134 in 2014 to 79 in 2015. The highest counts in this category were 210 in 2007 and 209 in 2013.

Two programs by Interfaith Works, a local consortium of faith communities, have contributed to the decline in homeless census numbers. The SideWalk program connects homeless adults with housing, case management and short-term rental assistance. Last August, the program reached a milestone of housing 200 clients in 21 months.

The Interfaith Works Overnight Emergency Shelter opened last November at First Christian Church in downtown Olympia. The shelter has been full ever since with a waiting list of more than 200 people.

The shelter uses a “vulnerability index” to gauge a client’s fragility and priority for one of 37 beds. About 320 homeless people have undergone a vulnerability assessment since October, said shelter director Meg Martin.

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At Monday’s task force meeting, Martin discussed a shelter initiative called the “Good Neighbor Policy.” All shelter clients sign an agreement to abstain from behaviors such as littering, loitering and drug use on church grounds, for example. The policy also asks shelter clients to treat neighboring businesses and residents with respect — and it is apparently working.

One of the shelter’s neighbors is the Olympia Timberland Library, which is considered a hub for the county homeless population, partly because the city lacks a daytime shelter.

Library manager Donna Feddern said she initially had concerns that the shelter would attract more problematic behavior when it opened six months ago. However, she praised the developing camaraderie between the library and the shelter, especially when it comes to finding resources for homeless people in crisis. Feddern noted that several shelter clients volunteered at a recent planting party for the library’s new vegetable garden.

“I value this relationship with Meg,” Feddern said Monday about the shelter and its efforts. “They’re our neighbors now.”

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