Despite Accuracy Concerns, ‘Homeless Census’ Makes Changes Amid COVID-19 Crisis

Thurston County’s annual tally of people experiencing homelessness will be quite different this year.

Since 2005, when the point-in-time homeless census, or PIT, began counting people experiencing homelessness and the reasons why, hundreds of volunteers have fanned out across the county to survey people living in encampments, vehicles, and on the street. 

Due to COVID-19 precautions, the county plans an “observation-based” count on January 28 (Thursday night into early Friday morning). This technique, rather than the survey-based census of previous years, is needed to limit direct contact between people to protect against the virus’s spread.

“Surveys would require an unsafe level of close interaction, even with the proper precaution of PPE (personal protective equipment) and is being done outside,” said Arielle Benson, the county’s point-in-time coordinator. “This will limit any direct contacts, which can be kept at a safe distance and brief,” she said.

The change comes at a time when evictions, job loss, and rapidly escalating rents continue to send people into homelessness. Hundreds of people are living in encampments and vehicles across the county.

Benson said this year’s census should not be any less accurate than those in past years.

“There are legitimate concerns about the accuracy of the PIT every year,” she said. “We know (the PIT) is a consistent undercount of those living unsheltered,” due to the federal definition of homelessness that excludes counting individuals’ doubling up’ (staying with friends or family).

While the 2021 census will gather numbers, it will not obtain information on the cause(s) of people becoming homeless (in 2020, eviction topped the list of reasons (167, or 28 percent), closely followed by job loss/unemployment (148, or 25 percent). These numbers undoubtedly have increased due to the pandemic. 

In 2020, the PIT identified 995 people living in a shelter, unsheltered in a doorway, the woods, or other locations where they are vulnerable to winter’s wind, rain, cold and falling trees, or summer’s smoke and searing heat. 

In 2020, 54% of those responding said they were living unsheltered, an increase from 49% in 2019. The 2020 report predicted that the number would increase in 2021 due to fewer shelter beds caused by COVID-19 restrictions and a lack of housing needed to support people moving out of homelessness. 

Last year’s PIT also identified a significant (and now growing) concern regarding the number of people sleeping in their vehicles. It found 27% of those surveyed reported sleeping in vehicles, RVs/boats, or abandoned buildings, up from 14% in 2019. On the night of January 23, 2020, that totaled nearly 260 people.

Since then, vehicle encampments have sprung up in Olympia and Lacey. The cities shut down two of them, one in Lacey and one in Olympia. Many of the residents have re-located to Ensign Road, where 70 or so people live. The city and county are struggling to find a place for people to park that is not on a public street. Tent and “tiny house” encampments also have grown in number and residents.

Information collected during the PIT, and trends shown by the data, are used to apply for funding for programs that support homeless individuals and to drive policy decisions regarding current and potential efforts to prevent and alleviate homelessness itself. Benson said the county is not concerned that the observation-only count will affect state or federal funding. 

The 2020 report, conducted before Covid-19 restrictions kicked in, recognized the onset of its effects on the houseless community. “Covid-19 has only complicated and worsened the situation for houseless neighbors, while the associated economic downturn has increased housing instability. Shelter capacity across the County has decreased, to ensure safe physical distancing. Hygiene services such as water, portable toilets, handwash stations, and dumpsters have been made available to help support unsanctioned encampments, to help stop the spread of the virus, but also in recognition there is not systemic capacity at this point to shelter everyone,” the report said.

The PIT has always relied on volunteers to make it successful, but such opportunities are limited this year. Those who have volunteered in the past interested in helping out this year may consider donating to Partners in Prevention Education (PiPE), Just Housing Olympia, Interfaith Works Homeless Services programs, or other local shelters or outreach organizations. Camping, outdoor survival, and warm winter gear are always needed, especially as we move into the coldest part of our year. 

If you have questions or would like more information on possible donation opportunities, or are interested in volunteering next year, email: PITcensusteam@co.thurston.wa.us

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By Mindy Chambers

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