Who’s homeless in Thurston County and why? The answer must drive solutions

In January, Thurston County was part of the annual homeless census, our only clear snapshot of local homelessness.

Called the Point in Time Count, or PIT, this herculean effort involves hundreds of people fanning out across the county to check shelters, camps and places where houseless people get meals and other survival goods. The PIT Count results determine public funding levels and guides programs to help folks get housed again. Without a comprehensive approach, we’re left to speculate.

Service providers offer head counts based on who they help. Other folks guestimate via windshield surveys of the visible camps along the freeway. Still others get information from community bloggers who’re agitated that homeless people have settled into their neighborhoods.

In spite of the best efforts of the county, the official results of the census are widely challenged by people from all sides of the political spectrum as being two to three times lower than the actual number of unsheltered neighbors. Who’s right?

Last year, Thurston County found 766 homeless people. Starting in 2004, the first PIT counted 441 people without a fixed address, and the county’s goal was to eliminate homelessness. In the next few years as the numbers climbed, that goal was readjusted to reduce it by half. Nearly 20 years later, it seems that the PIT functions less as a target for change and more of a barometer of reality.

Not to say there hasn’t been progress. Tthousands of people have gotten rehoused and back on their feet. Yet a large and persistent number of people live at the edges of our community, a status quo that nobody is comfortable with.

Why is homelessness such a relentless problem?

For those who see homelessness through a more conservative lens, homeless is the result of personal failures: unwillingness to work, willful drug addiction, perhaps sheer laziness. Someone calling themselves “liberylover” responded to my last column saying, “You ask, ‘Where can our houseless neighbors go?’ They can go to rehab, they can go to work, they can go elsewhere. And since when did vagrants who violate the laws (become my) ‘neighbors’? All my neighbors work and pay taxes.” Not an uncommon reaction, although not sympathetic to some of the real causes of homelessness.

A differing assessment is offered by Tedd Kelleher, housing policy director at the Department of Commerce, who’s been studying the causes of homelessness for years.

“After eight years of steady improvement, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Washington State began to increase in 2013,” Kelleher said. “After examining potential drivers of the upward trend, it appears the increase is overwhelmingly caused by an undersupply of subsidized and market-rate housing, causing rents to increase, pushing people living at the margins into homelessness.”

Another measurement homelessness is the annual public school count of K-12 students living without a fixed address. Unlike the PIT, this count looks at family living arrangements over the entire school year and includes families who are staying with friends and family.

This year, local schools reported 1,443 homeless students, equivalent to three elementary schools, a number included in the statewide count that increases every year. These are children trying to learn the three R’s — “reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic” — without a stable family home. It’s hard to dismiss them as lazy, drug-addicted ex-felons.

Lack of a permanent address renders someone “stateless,” no longer part of any community. This statelessness is sometimes used as a political club by some public figures who refer to homelessness as an “Olympia” problem, despite the fact that underlying causes — high rents, addiction and mental health — are equal opportunity among zip codes. In short, there is no option to “return to sender.” This is a shared issue.

We shouldn’t grow accustomed to homeless camps, nor should we expect neighbors to pipe down and just live with the negative impacts. Homeless folks are our neighbors, and their situation affects us all. Until we come to agreement on who’s homeless and why and start to see this as a shared problem, it will be difficult to find a lasting solution.

Anna Schlecht is retired from the City of Olympia where she worked on housing and homeless issues for several decades. She is writing a yearlong series of opinion columns on housing and homelessness in Thurston County.