Thurston County had an ambitious task last Thursday: Tallying the homeless population for the entire county.
The full results of Thurston County’s homeless census will be released in a report in the spring.
Each year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) presents data on homelessness in the United States in an annual assessment to Congress. One of the ways HUD collects data for the annual report is with a “Point in Time” count of homeless people on a single day, also known as the homeless census.
Thurston County contracted Aaron Rodriguez’s firm, ACR Business Consulting, to partner with the health and human services department to conduct the census countywide. Conducting the count in rural areas, such as south Thurston County, poses unique challenges.
“There are not many individuals who are actually living unsheltered or on the streets per se like in more dense areas of Thurston County,” Rodriguez said. “What makes it tricky is that HUD, which is the agency that oversees this census ... one of their classifications for a homeless person is that the individual is living in a substandard structure, a structure lacking in heat or hot water or the ability to cook and the ability to bathe. So that’s a very broad classification, or subclassification, of who HUD considers homeless.”
Finding ways to reach out to those inadequately-sheltered individuals was a priority this year, Rodriguez said.
“We’re looking into recommendations for the county on how to engage that audience,” he said. “It is a big question mark, and it is a really important piece of truly getting an accurate number of homeless individuals in Thurston County as a whole, but definitely in rural communities (also).”
The county partnered with agencies in Yelm, Tenino and Rochester who serve homeless and low-income populations. That included Yelm Community Services in Yelm and Tenino Community Service Center in Tenino.
Three volunteers worked at YCS from 12:30-4:30 p.m., which was identified as the agency’s busiest time, Rodriguez said.
“We were able to connect with 14 individuals willing to fill out the census,” Rodriguez said, adding that volunteers may have interfaced with more people who didn’t fill out a survey.
Sahara Rice, of Lacey, was one of the volunteers at YCS.
“I like to do service work for my community, plus I know many people that have experienced hardships and I think sometimes a smiling face when the days are tough and the rejection is high helps motivate people to stay on track and feel appreciated,” Rice said.
Many people are ashamed to admit they’re homeless and are scared to reach out for help for fear of being judged, she said.
“If we reach out to them and make them feel important, then they’re more likely to ask for help,” she said. “And if we have an accurate count we could prepare with better resources to kind of intervene and get families stable and sustainable.”
Rice said she’s a student at The Evergreen State College studying business management. One of her school projects is putting together a five-year business plan for a transitional living program for homeless youth. When she graduates, she hopes to put the plan into action and make the program a reality.
The Tenino service center had limited hours Thursday, from 8:30-10:30 a.m. Only one survey was filled out there as of Tuesday afternoon, although Rodriguez said he was waiting to hear back on possibly two or three additional surveys coming in.
Volunteers also conducted the census in Rochester at ROOF Community Resource Center, but no one filled out a survey there, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez was quick to acknowledge the reluctance of people to take unsolicited surveys. One of the ways they tried to get around that challenge was by offering incentives for completing surveys, he said.
Volunteers passed out “goodie bags” that were put together with in-kind donations, and contained things like pizza coupons, toothbrushes and toothpaste, instant coffee, and hand warmers.
“It was enough to allow volunteers to make a friendly introduction, and feel fairly well received,” he said.
People who completed the survey were also entered into a drawing for door prizes, including a $50 gift certificate donated by the Yelm Food Co-op.
“Today and tomorrow we’ll be selecting the winners of the raffle,” Rodriguez said on Tuesday. “Our goal is to have potentially two or three winners from the Yelm and Tenino area, to hopefully just show people that the raffle was real and was intentional, and that their support was valuable and that they won a prize for being willing to participate and help us out.”
In 2005, Thurston County and most of the municipalities within the county put together a 10-year plan to end homelessness. The plan was updated in 2010, and now is in need of another revision.
“My firm was contracted to work on that component, and the point in time count is an important piece of that,” Rodriguez said. “It does take place every year and the information that we’re getting from it does a really good job of giving us a human profile of who is homeless in Thurston County.”
HUD requires about 15 questions be collected on the survey, including name, date of birth, gender, and other demographic information. It also asks questions such as, where did you stay last night, what would you say caused you to become homeless, and are you currently receiving income or financial benefits?
The questions help the county determine what percentages of the homeless population are made up of youth, veterans, families, etc., Rodriguez said. There are certain groups the federal government puts a stronger emphasis on; the hope is that the numbers don’t go up, but if the trend is showing an increase that directly affects the county, it means they may be eligible for a greater amount of resources for specific sub demographics, Rodriguez said.
The questions about the cause of homelessness also help the county, by giving officials better ideas of indicators to look out for, giving them an opportunity to intervene before a family or individual becomes homeless, Rodriguez said.