Homeless census helps direct funding, assistance

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OLYMPIA — Homelessness rose dramatically in Thurston County when the recession hit, but local volunteers and agencies remain optimistic that the numbers will go down.

The 2014 Point-in-Time Census was held Thursday to track the homeless population and determine how best to help them.

The census began as part of a statewide effort to reduce homelessness 50 percent by July 2015. The number of homeless in Thurston County has increased nearly 56 percent since 2006. In 2013, the census counted 686 total homeless individuals, with 237 unsheltered. Of that total, 58 percent were male.

Volunteers teamed up Thursday to serve a hot lasagna lunch and hand out goods at First Christian Church in downtown Olympia. Some of the homeless diners included parents with toddlers.

At the church, dozens of homeless people received haircuts, foot care and survival items such as blankets, coats, socks, tarps, sleeping bags and pocket-size handwarmers. Most of these commodities were gone in 30 minutes.

Among the homeless at First Christian Church was James Wellings, 48, who has lived in a transitional apartment off Boulevard Road in Olympia for about a year. Before that, he lived in a van for seven years.

Wellings said a number of hardships led to his homelessness, including a head injury. He credits local social programs such as Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness for connecting him with housing — and easing his search for employment. Now he hopes to create his own opportunities by starting a natural-disaster preparedness training program.

"The better my life gets, the better I can help other people get out of the doldrums," said Wellings, noting that many in the homeless community lack coping skills and self-esteem.

Mirror of recession

This year's final census numbers are due March 1, with raw data available in the coming weeks.

Anna Schlect, Olympia's housing program manager, said the rise and fall of homelessness mirrors the recession. As such, she expects this year's census to tally fewer homeless people because the nation's economy is showing signs of recovery. This year organizers also focused on collecting data in outlying rural and wooded areas where the homeless are more secluded.

In December, the Thurston County Project Homeless Connect was held at The Olympia Center to raise awareness for Thursday's census and help generate more accurate numbers.

Theresa Slusher, the county's homeless system coordinator, said the December event helped build trust among the homeless population and has encouraged more cooperation with the census.