Rural areas left behind in homeless census count

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The number of homeless people decreased across the state and in Thurston County from 2012-13, according to a report out this week by the Washington Department of Commerce.

The census numbers come from the annual Point in Time Count that takes place late each January, and does not include people that are doubled up and temporarily living with family or friends.

The unsheltered are found in cars, tents, in the woods under trees, parks, sidewalks, abandoned buildings, under bridges and out on the streets. Homeless people often lack access to drinking water, bathrooms, heat, ovens and bathing facilities.

Of particular concern is unsheltered families with children, which thankfully is down 28 percent from a year ago and a whopping 73 percent decline since 2006.

Here in Thurston County, we went from 708 homeless people down to 664.

During the January census, outreach worker Selena Kilmoyer was at Yelm Community Services feeding the needy and counting those without homes. She said while the count is important, it misses many in the greater Yelm area. She talked of a family in Rainier living in an abandoned building. “They’re invisible,” she said in a Nisqually Valley News story.

The need for more services in our area is evident. The YCS shelter has room for seven families. They are allowed to stay for a week. As soon as one moves out, another is waiting in line.

“So how do we, in Thurston County, convince the local politicians that they need to work together to get some kind of a state grant (or) federal grant that would provide a full assessment of the real poverty needs here in rural county?”

She said more resources are available for homeless people living in north Thurston County.

As Kilmoyer said, the groups working to serve homeless in our area are “extremely dedicated.” 

The Yelm area has faith-based organizations and service clubs that reach out to those in dire need, offering free meals and transitional housing. Each week, for example, homeless teens in Yelm can pick up a backpack full of easy-to-eat food and necessities on a Friday to get them through the weekend.

This area is often found in the same category of homeless people when it comes to state services: invisible. We lack the denser population found in Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater that demands attention.

Future census efforts need to include variables unique to rural areas when counting and delivering needed services to the homeless.

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