Data Shows Thurston's Homeless Population Is Rising — And Still Not Everyone Is Counted


Thurston County released the complete report this week from the 2020 Point-in-Time (PIT) count, an annual one-day survey when volunteers fan out to conduct interviews with county residents who are homeless.

The numbers, which have changed slightly from what The Olympian reported immediately after the count in February, show a significant increase in homelessness -- from 800 people in 2019 to 995 people in 2020.

But even more important is what those numbers don't show.

"I think there's a lot of things we're missing," said Keylee Marineau, Thurston County's Homeless Prevention and Affordable Housing Coordinator.

For starters, the report notes that approximately 350 people identified declined to participate -- the survey only counts those who are willing to be interviewed. But there's also the question of how "homelessness" is defined by the count, which is undertaken across the country and has implications for federal funding of housing programs.

"The point-in-time count is inherently flawed because we're using HUD's definition of 'sleeping in a place not meant for human habitation,'" Marineau said.

A more robust definition would include people who are doubled-up, couch-surfing or staying with family or friends (of which the report lists 101), people incarcerated in jails who were homeless when they entered (242), and -- the largest group by far -- homeless K-12 public school students (1,736).

In a supplemental section, the report notes that if these additional demographics were counted, the true number would be closer to 3,424. But, even though the data has been gathered, the county is not allowed to include those numbers in its official report to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The data on homeless K-12 public school students comes from the Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), and they use a much broader definition of "homelessness," which is defined by the U.S. Department of Education under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to include "children sharing housing due to economic hardship."

These numbers tell a different story, especially with regard to cities like Tumwater and Rochester, where street counts show few unsheltered people, yet both have more than 100 K-12 students whose families are living "doubled up."

For years, civil rights groups and advocates for the homeless have argued that the PIT count, mandated by HUD since 2003, is a flawed metric that under-represents the actual scale of homelessness -- and allows federal officials to make misleading claims about the progress being made.

"Point in time counts fail to account for the transitory nature of homelessness and thus present a misleading picture of the crisis," argues a 2017 study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, entitled "Don't Count On It." That report also references a 2001 study that used administrative data collected from homeless service providers over a year-long period, which estimated that the actual number of homeless individuals is at least 2.5 times more than point in time counts measure.

The under-reporting of homelessness has real stakes: it means that fewer families are eligible for HUD's services, and it also affects the funding that Congress allocates to HUD, and in turn the funding that counties like Thurston receive.

Programs with funding affected by PIT count data include the Housing Authority of Thurston County's specialized voucher programs such as the "Mainstream" housing voucher (for persons with disabilities) and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher, according to HATC executive director Craig Chance.

In its 2019 report to Congress, HUD claimed that homelessness, as measured by the point in time counts, has declined by more than 79,000 people since 2007, a 12% reduction.

But HUD's methodology has changed over time, too. In 2013, the agency removed individuals receiving Rapid Rehousing vouchers from the category of "transitional housing," while claiming a significant national reduction in homelessness that same year.

"I think HUD's data is extremely flawed, not only because of their definition, but the way they count homelessness annually is absurd -- it's about the worst method you could use," said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national youth homelessness organization. Duffield was quoted in a 2018 CityLab article about a Congressional bill that would have expanded HUD's definition of homelessness to align with other federal agencies. That bill has since stalled.

Here in Thurston County, the PIT only counts the five cities that chose to participate: Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater, Rochester, and -- for the first time since the PIT began -- Yelm. Other towns in Thurston County that chose not to participate -- Tenino, Bucoda, Grand Mound, and Rainier -- were not counted at all.

This year was the first year the Nisqually Tribe participated -- but volunteers interviewed only non-tribal members who live on reservation land near the casino.

Rural areas and anywhere that volunteers can't feasibly canvass in one day -- those areas also are not counted.

Marineau and others in county government and in Olympia have worked to expand the PIT's scope to create a fuller snapshot -- which may partially explain the higher numbers this year. Those expanded efforts include resource events and incentives for people to participate, where volunteers handed out first-aid kits and ponchos. Count organizers also engaged 30 people who have experienced homelessness to help with data collection. The addition of Yelm also added numbers.

In addition, several organizations used a seven-day count in areas with hard-to-reach populations, including in Rochester and Tumwater. The city of Lacey did a "street count" for the first time this year.

"The community has been asking for a regional response to homelessness for many years, and I think the collaboration that occurred for the 2020 PIT demonstrated our region's commitment to addressing that request," Marineau said.

The PIT count took place on Jan. 23 with 230 volunteers, with the final report expected to be released in May. However, COVID-19 delayed certification of the data by the Department of Commerce, which roots out duplicate surveys and tosses some forms that lack sufficient information.

2020 PIT Report

Given the PIT's limitations, the report's findings are noteworthy.

The survey found that of the 995 total, 541 people were living unsheltered (54%), 295 people (30%) were staying in emergency shelters, and 159 (16%) were in transitional housing (defined as up to two years).

The number of unsheltered people, which includes those in tent encampments as well as in vehicles or RVs (and a very small number living in boats and abandoned buildings), increased significantly from last year's count of 394.

It's worth noting that 26% of the unsheltered, or about 140 people, were living in vehicles or RVs. The city of Olympia keeps track of live-aboard vehicles -- there are at least 83, according to a complaint log.

The county's shelter capacity also has decreased since the count because of COVID-19 physical distancing requirements. It's now down to 197, and that includes the mitigation site.

The report also found that Black and Native American people are over-represented in the homeless population. While Black people make up only 3% of Thurston County's population, 7% of PIT respondents were Black. Native Americans made up 4% of the PIT count, despite making up only 1% of the county's population.

Why are people becoming homeless?

The PIT survey found three primary causes people reported for why they became homeless. In order of most frequency, they were: eviction/loss of housing, job loss, and family rejection.

Also cited, though somewhat less frequently, were substance dependency, physical disability, and mental health.

Respondents could select multiple options.

Where are people living? Where are they from?

Geographically, because all of the county's shelters and federally recognized transitional housing facilities are in Olympia, the majority of respondents were located in Olympia.

The count also found 40 people in Lacey, 30 in Yelm, 9 in Tumwater, and 6 in Rochester. The report includes 142 others without a location.

Thurston County Commissioner Tye Menser pointed out during a briefing on the report that constituents often question if homeless people are actually from this area; the PIT numbers overwhelmingly affirm that yes, most are.

Three-quarters of respondents listed their last known address as Thurston County or a neighboring county, with 61% listing Thurston County itself. Another 11% listed other Washington counties. Just 14% said they were from out-of-state.

Of those who listed Thurston County as their last known address, 74% said they'd lived here for between 1-5 years.


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