A few local residents were up bright and early Thursday, Jan. 24 to help Thurston County count the number of homeless people in and around Yelm proper.
The Thurston County Point in Time (PIT) count, which took place for most of the day, was apart of a larger nationwide census led by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine the number of people living without sustainable housing. Census information also helps guide public funding of social services throughout the county.
At around noon Thursday, after the team of six had counted 10 individuals scattered throughout the community, they set their eyes on the Yelm Community Services Food Bank. With clipboards and binders in hand, and about 40 blue ikea tote bags stuffed in volunteers’ cars, with items donated by local businesses and organizations, the team set up shop and spoke with those in line.
Of the 20 individuals in line at noon, two were found to be experiencing homelessness .
Suzie LeFurgey, a PIT volunteer and cofounder of Helping Hands & Healing Hearts, a citizen-led service organization that helps people in need, said it’s important to be accommodative to their needs while also understanding that they can say no to the census.
“Everything is at the discretion of the person taking the census,” LeFurgey said. “We just have to go with what they give us.”
LeFurgey said she tries to counsel census takers and ask them what they need. Wherever Yanah G. Cook and her go, they carry bags of donated coats and clothes in their car for those with wet or ragged clothes.
“It’s always exactly what they need,” LeFurgey said.
Thurston County Commissioner Gary Edwards met up with the three counters, all clad in reflective safety vests. They held an impromptu roundtable outside the food bank and discussed the regional culture of addressing homelessness and what their communities could do.
Cook, a PIT volunteer and member of Helping Hands & Healing Hearts, said she hopes Edwards will take word back to Olympia that smaller communities, such as Yelm, are facing difficulties with keeping people housed and that the cost of services for the homeless is a very short term cost that would help every person in the community.
“This is our home. This is where our needs are,” Cook told Edwards.
Edwards said he’s been an advocate for extending transportation hours, which help individuals travel and get resources. County funding for homelessness services is tricky, Edwards said, especially when you have so many dollars going to mitigating homelessness in Olympia.
Edwards said he’s supportive of the PIT count.
Yelm counters put in a total of 36 man hours at the end of the day, LeFurgey said. They ended their count Thursday night at Yelm Prairie Christian Church during a hot meal event for those facing homelessness. Alongside 17 individuals grateful for home cooked meal, the census takers ended their night with their own sense of gratuity.
Last year, the Yelm PIT censused 28 individuals living without stable or efficient housing, LeFurgey said. About 35 people were counted this year.
The Thurston County 2019 PIT Count census sheet had a variety of questions that ran the gamut of identifying an individual’s need. It asked questions regarding if the person was fleeing domestic abuse, where they stayed last, how long have they lived without stable housing, what caused their homelessness and more intricately refined questions.
Initial findings from the census found almost all of those living in encampments, in their cars or by other means around Yelm were last housed in the Yelm area, LeFurgey said.
It was also found that homeless individuals in Yelm weren’t flocking to one particular location. LeFurgey said they would often just find a place in the community where they could rest their head.
“We did find new people in locations that we weren’t aware of,” LeFurgey said.
It was also found that about two-thirds of those censused were last housed in the Yelm area. Almost all of those censused had been living without stable housing for a year or more, LeFurgey said.
In recent years, Thurston County has been at the forefront of a homelessness crisis. Compared to 2017, the 2018 Thurston County PIT Count found an increased in those censused, up 828 from 534.
Final census reports will be filed in the Spring.