When Anita Marriott thinks about homelessness, her mind usually goes to downtown Olympia. There, the issue is clearly visible and as a result, many of the services available in Thurston County are directed to the urban core.
But Marriott, a long-time resident of rural Yelm, knows that the problem is not specific to Olympia. “My brother works at the Safeway in Yelm, and he’s told me stories of people living in the bushes. The merchants in town really know about the issue,” she says.
On January 26, the annual homeless census I Count Thurston expands to include the rural communities of Yelm, Rainier, Tenino, and Rochester. The goal is to both raise community awareness of what needs exist and get accurate data for the county to make informed decisions. “I hope we see a much bigger turnout than they have had in the past so that Yelm’s housing needs are counted,” says Marriott, who has been volunteering to help organize the event. “If I wanted to do a project and applied for a grant, there are no statistics available right now to show that Yelm even has a need. We have no evidence. It’s well known but not well documented.”
As a rule, the homeless census has struggled to connect with rural communities says Aaron Rodriguez, Managing Director of ACR Business Consulting, an Olympia-based company which is conducting the census for the second year. “Last year we collected 342 surveys and only about 30 were from rural communities.”
The challenge is two-fold. According to the federal classification for homelessness, someone who lives in substandard housing or has no running water or ability to cook would be considered homeless. That doesn’t align with how people view themselves, says Rodriguez. “Somebody that lives in a camper would be seen as homeless but when we do this census, by and large, these people aren’t coming out to participate or be included.”
The second challenge is that key agencies in rural areas often provide services that are not necessarily housing related so getting the word out can be difficult. “There’s a disconnect,” says Rodriguez. “Our goal is to get in touch with those agencies and say, ‘You’re an anchor in the community. If these people are already coming to you, let’s see if they’d be willing to fill out a housing survey.”
Marriott has been working to procure items for goody bags that every participant will receive, as well as door prizes and services such as haircuts, health screenings, and even reiki treatments. “Everybody’s going to get a gift bag with all kinds of treats in it,” she says. “I went to seven businesses yesterday and all of them were really enthusiastic about supporting this event.”
In neighboring Tenino, Aimee Richardson was motivated to volunteer in order to raise awareness. “I know there are more homeless folks than are being recognized in our community and I would like for that to be clear and apparent that there’s a need here,” she says. As a member of the Parks Commission and a board member for the Creekside Conservancy, she has more information about the need locally than many of her neighbors. “There are people living in areas that have an impact on critical salmon habitat we’re trying to protect.”
This is not Richardson’s first exposure to the issue. In Centralia she helped to conduct a Point in Time census with the Affordable Housing Authority. She’s learned that it’s a mistake to make assumptions about why people are homeless. “Not everyone’s needs or circumstances are the same,” she says. “Lots of people have disabilities or mental issues that have made it so they are not able to keep a job. It’s not because they’re drug addicts.”
Marriott also has some experience with addressing the problem. Several years ago she began taking her granddaughter along with several friends to downtown Olympia during the holiday season, passing out hats and gloves to anyone who looked like they needed something. “I’ve learned enough that on these really cold days when I look out and see the snow, my thoughts are about them,” she says. “How are they staying warm? They weren’t in my mind before but now they’re in my thoughts. I also learned that socks are the most valuable commodity.”
The biggest goal of this year’s census is to raise awareness, says Rodriguez. “Officials in rural communities will say we don’t have a homelessness problem. They don’t recognize that it’s the single mom with two kids and no running water in the house. There is too big of a disparity between urban core and these outlying areas.”
Richardson hopes that the information resulting from the event will give rise to more community spirit. “I’ve been in Tenino for about 20 years and my overwhelming experience has been that the community is very caring and people are always helping each other out,” she says. “I’d like to see more of us become aware that we have people that need support right now, and it’s not somebody else’s problem, it’s everybody’s responsibility.”