Forum Explores Homeless Census Data

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By Meta Hogan

 

Several dozen people gathered at the Thurston County Courthouse on a recent Saturday morning to review data from this year’s point-in-time homeless census count, which was conducted on January 27. Among the attendees were service providers, elected officials, city and county staff, homeless folks and interested citizens.

The point-in-time homeless census is intended to be a snapshot of homelessness in Thurston County. It provides valuable data about who is homeless and why, and serves as a measure of progress in ending homelessness.

Reviewing and analyzing point-in-time count statistics is a key part of the Ten Year Homeless Housing Plan, begun in 2005, which is designed to guide the county in reducing homelessness by 50% by July 2015.

Data from the count should point to gaps in housing and services available to homeless people, as well as document progress toward the 50% goal. For example, two years ago the data showed a significant increase in the number of homeless families with children. Once that need was identified, service providers were able to respond by opening the Family Emergency Shelter and targeting services to families.

If you review the data since 2006, the numbers are disheartening and a little confusing. From a baseline count of 441 individuals in 2006, the number rose to 579 in 2007, dipped to 462 in 2008, rose dramatically to 745 in 2009, hit a whopping 976 in 2010, and fell sharply to 566 in 2011.

A graph of these data would make you dizzy with its ups and downs, but one thing is clear: the number of people in Thurston County who are experiencing homelessness has only grown since 2006.

Service providers and volunteers who conducted the survey agree that this year’s surprisingly low numbers – a mere 28% over 2006 – are the result of changes in methodology (statewide census guidelines, data entry procedures, accessibility of campsites, and provider participation) rather than an actual reduction in homelessness.

This morning’s question is: With more than half of the county’s allotted ten years gone, and no progress in reducing homelessness, what do we need to do to get back on track?

 

The morning began with an introduction by Mike McGowan, Yelm city councilmember and chair of the Thurston County HOME Consortium, a group of elected officials tasked with distributing much of the homelessness-related public funding in the county. McGowan emphasized recent victories, including land acquisition, in the fight against homelessness.

A panel of seven individuals followed, each representing local organizations that serve the homeless.

Jill Severn and Tina Marie, representing Camp Quixote, discussed tent city as a housing model that builds relationships among residents and volunteers, and helps residents regain hope and self-esteem.

SideWalk Advocacy and Support Center director Phil Owen made argued that better coordination of funding and referrals, and a focus on rapid rehousing, could make ending homelessness entirely an achievable goal.

Interfaith Works, a participant in the Homeless Prevention Project, has been increasingly involved in providing direct services, including providing much-needed volunteer labor.

“Faith communities bring more than money and [volunteer] numbers,” Interfaith Works director Danny Kadden explained. “There’s also a quality of commitment that helps prevent burnout.” He emphasized the changing role of faith communities in the worsening economy: “It’s grim out there, and there’s a sense that we have to step up to a higher level of involvement.”

Major Bill Lum of the Salvation Army remembers years ago when it felt like their shelter was “the only game in town.” He expressed relief that more organizations are getting involved, and praised the cooperation of those organizations. “It’s not about competition,” he said. “It’s about working together.”

Nanci LaMusga with Partners in Prevention Education, an organization that works with homeless and at-risk youth to prevent and address sexual violence, bias and hate crimes, focused on the effects of trauma on street-dependent youth.

“Homelessness is not necessarily a choice,” she pointed out. “It can be a response to life circumstances. Homelessness really sucks, but for some youth it’s better than where they came from.”

La Musga emphasized the need for training for law enforcement and service providers to ensure appropriate responses to already-traumatized young people.

Debby Gaffney, Homeless Liaison for the North Thurston School District, outlined the lack of support available for homeless students. “There are young children living in tents, vehicles and garages, and the ‘overflow’ shelter for families has been full all summer.

When the panel finished, breakout groups addressed different approaches to homelessness: public policy, faith community involvement, Camp Quixote as a model, interacting with street-dependent youth, and coordination of services. The results will be included in the final census report.

The final draft of the 2011 Homeless Census Report is available on the Thurston County website: http://www.co.thurston.wa.us/health/sscp/PDF/2011ThurstonCountyCensusReport10.pdf

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