It’s Not Getting Better Out There

Early numbers show more people unsheltered, houseless in Thurston County

1,145

That’s the preliminary count of Thurston County residents who are living unsheltered or staying in shelters or transitional housing of some kind.

The number, released Tuesday by Thurston County Public Health and Social Services, is information gathered during the Point-in-Time Homeless Census count on the night of January 28, 2021. More than half of those counted were unsheltered. The count found: 

  • 169 people stayed in transitional housing.
  • 337 people stayed in emergency shelters.
  • 639 people (56%) stayed in sanctioned and unsanctioned encampments, RVs, or other vehicles and in small structures, doorways, and other places not meant for human habitation. 
  • An estimated 121 individuals at local jails or hospitals and who have no permanent address.

Due to COVID-19 health concerns, the Washington State Department of Commerce, following federal guidelines, left the method for counting unsheltered homeless individuals up to local jurisdictions. The county determined a count of unsheltered individuals would be beneficial as a comparison to numbers in previous years.  

In previous years, volunteers used surveys to collect data. Due to the pandemic, volunteers, outreach professionals, and homeless individuals living in encampments collected information through “observation”. 

Since the data collection methodology changed this year, making comparisons in data to previous years needs to be done with caution. 

The 2020 data shows 995 homeless individuals, 541 of which were unsheltered, or 54% of those counted. It was an increase from 2019 where 49% indicated they were unsheltered.

The new numbers come at a time when the county and the cities within it struggle to find a “safe parking” location for a growing number of vehicles parked along Ensign Road and at other locations throughout the county. Plans for a location at Martin Way and Carpenter Road fell through due to the expense and complexity of setting it up, county and city officials have said, and they are now proposing a “scattered site” approach, in which organizations could offer space for a few vehicles to park and the county would contract for case management, site management, hygiene, and solid waste management, crisis response, housing, and other services.  Further discussion of this is expected at the March 18 Regional Housing Council meeting.

“Thurston County is committed to addressing the homelessness crisis in our county, and we’re grateful to have an amazing and dedicated group of partners working together to make progress on this complex situation,” Thurston County Public Health and Social Services Director Schelli Slaughter said in a news release. “The Point-in-Time census is an important tool to help us better understand the challenges those without stable housing are facing.”

For more information on the county’s homelessness and housing program activities, visit: https://www.thurstoncountywa.gov/bocc/Pages/homelessness.aspx 

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By Mindy Chambers

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