Thurston’s homeless population is likely larger than the census shows

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Keylee Marineau, Thurston County Affordable Housing and Homelessness Prevention Coordinator, interviews Ruth Kenny for the 2020 Point in Time Count Homeless Census Project Thursday morning during breakfast at the community kitchen at the Salvation Army at Olympia. Kenny is currently staying at Interfaith Works.

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Thurston County’s homeless population likely hasn’t declined despite a weaker census this year, but the true numbers are hard to pinpoint.

If you just look at the data, the number of homeless people in Thurston County apparently went from 1,145 people in January 2021 to 766 people in February 2022. Still, that’s far from the whole story.

The count at one point has historically underestimated the homeless population, making comparisons difficult. Year-to-year changes in how counting is done and variable engagement make trends from year to year difficult to pinpoint, said Arielle Benson, homeless program specialist in Thurston County.

“While this is one of our best types of touchpoints for those experiencing homelessness in our community, it’s also very difficult to make these year-over-year assumptions,” Benson said. “We change our methodology as we learn each year.”

If you make assumptions about the undercounts, she said you could say the census numbers have remained relatively stable over the past few years.

“Even with changes in methodology, we don’t see a significant increase or decrease in either direction,” Benson said.

Tye Gundel, program coordinator for Olympia Mutual Aid Partners, said her organization has seen more people homeless this year than in previous years.

“Since the pandemic, I think we’ve seen a bigger increase, especially with new people, but overall over the last three to five years it’s felt like a steady increase.”

Anecdotally, Gundel said many people have been displaced by apartments bought, renovated and then sold or rented at higher prices.

Others have been displaced due to domestic violence, Gundel said. In particular, the preliminary census indicates that 17% of those questioned had suffered domestic violence.

The lack of permanent supportive housing has also pushed some into homelessness, Gundel said.

“We have a higher number of people who are chronically homeless, and those people aren’t moving into housing because there’s very little new space being created,” Gundel said.

Even though the census recorded fewer homeless people this year, Benson said that shouldn’t affect funding for homelessness efforts.

“There are a lot of weaknesses with this methodology that everyone understands,” Benson said. “As a nation, we haven’t found a better way to measure this.”

Census challenges

This year staff opted to ask the people they counted to complete an abbreviated survey, unlike last year where all staff could observe living homeless were counted. This contributed to comparative undercoverage.

“We had close to 100 people who declined consent in some form and these are people who were even willing to participate in the survey in the first place,” Benson said. “A good number of people we met were simply not interested in participating or participating in the survey.”

Benson said the county also hasn’t held any events this year, which usually drives engagement. This was partly due to the spike in COVID-19 cases earlier this year which delayed the census by a month.

“There was still a lot of COVID hesitation around the engagement,” Benson said. “We didn’t host any events, really wanting to minimize that interpersonal interaction so we don’t spread COVID in the community.”

The impact of the events can best be illustrated by the numbers surveyed at Yelm. Benson said Love Abounds Here, a homeless advocacy nonprofit, helped sponsor a monthly service event at the Yelm community center that overlapped with the one-time count.

As a result, 56 homeless people were interviewed at Yelm. For comparison, only 25 were interviewed in Lacey and only one in Tumwater.

For Tumwater, Benson said the county has partnered with the city to map known sites where campers enter and exit. But they struggled to find people on these sites, let alone willing participants.

“It’s a methodological thing, isn’t it?” Benson said. “We go out to the camps and if people aren’t there, we can’t count them.”

One of the reasons fewer people were counted in Tumwater may have to do with the way housing insecurity plays out there.

Tumwater spokeswoman Ann Cook said she believed more people in Tumwater were struggling with unstable housing situations rather than living homeless. For that reason, the city has focused on programs and services that help people stay housed, she said.

“The homeless population is just a bit different in Tumwater,” Cook said. “Many would say that’s partly because we don’t have the same type of services as some neighboring towns, but we don’t have the demand for those types of services either.”

As one piece of a larger puzzle, Benson said the census helps create a picture of the homeless population across the county. Other resources help complete the picture, she said.

Many service providers enter data into the homeless management information system. Benson said it helps the county know how many people are actively staying in shelters or how many unique contacts outreach service providers are making.

Data on homeless students can be found in an extensive database maintained by the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Information, Benson added.

Despite its flaws, the census is not without merit. Gundel said the census provides a baseline for the community to see trends.

“Even if not everyone responds to the survey, the survey results we get are important,” Gundel said. “The only way to end homelessness is to truly understand who is homeless and why.”

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