Thursday, January 24, 2013

Homeless Census More Than Just Numbers

Above: Anna Schlect, city of Olympia's housing program manager, and lead coordinator for Thurston County's 2013 "Point In Time" homeless census count, reviews interview forms submitted by volunteer Marci Price this afternoon.
 by Janine Unsoeld

By late afternoon today, an estimated 200 - 300 homeless people arrived to take advantage of social services offered by regional partners, said Anna Schlect, city of Olympia's housing program manager.

The city and Thurston County entered into an agreement to conduct Thurston County's annual "point in time" homeless census. The city will provide preliminary result information to the county by March 1. The definition of homelessness includes people living in emergency shelters, transitional and substandard housing, those who are unsheltered, such as cars, tents, parks and sidewalks, and those living in the homes of family members or friends.

The census numbers are used by federal, state and local governments to help them qualify for tax funding and guides the allocation of tax dollars toward shelter and services. Eighty percent of the actual homeless count comes from agencies, said Schlect, so the results are not based solely on the census numbers gathered today.

In past years, volunteers have gone out to find and interview homeless people. This year was different. To reach the homeless who are not receiving shelter or services from any agencies, the event today involved a coordination of providers offering resources and needed on-site services in one location, proving that the census involved more than just numbers.

"This is the first time we've done's mostly been fantastic. As with any first attempt, there's been a few bumps, but this has been an amazing experience to see what it takes to put together a full service community center with food, social services, haircuts, and medical services...we even have even valet parking for people's bicycles and backpacks!" said Schlect. Schlect said the people who have come to take advantage of the services have been very appreciative, especially for the haircuts.

"Our partners have been wowed by the opportunity to get out of their normal flight path to spend time understanding all the needs of the homeless," she said. "We've also partnered with police, fire and medical services. In fact, this is a great trial run for how we need to respond to a natural disaster. Last year was Snowmaggedon. We needed to learn how to accommodate the homeless. So here we are, with four active faith communities within two blocks. This is where we can serve three distinct populations: families and children, unaccompanied youth, and single adults. After a natural disaster, people with homes get to go home, but homeless people get pushed out. It's heartbreaking...." Schlect has been involved with efforts to learn from the missteps of last year's cold weather response.

Sitting with Schlect throughout our outdoor interview, Schlect fielded a constant stream of volunteers returning from the field to discuss their interview forms, and answer questions from community members. Over a 24 hour period, about 175 volunteers will have fanned out to cover Thurston County and collect data in rural communities, the urban hub, and other areas where the homeless are known to gather.

Marci Price, who is employed by the city of Lacey, was one of those who returned her forms to Schlect. She said it was her first time volunteering for the homeless census and told Schlect she wants to do it again next year.

"It was very rewarding. Everyone I greeted was very receptive, welcoming, wanting to tell their story," said Price. Price told Schlect that she had contact with eight homeless people, but only returned three completed forms because the others had already been contacted by volunteers.

"Sometimes that feels like you didn't sell as many Girl Scout cookies but it's important to check," Schlect joked with Price. Asked by this reporter how long she spent speaking with each person, Price said it depended on how much they wanted to talk, saying she spent between five to 15 minutes or longer speaking with each person.

"You're the best!" responded Schlect. Schlect, however, genuinely praised everyone with that phrase many times over, thanking volunteers for their time.

The Homeless Connect event staged tents in the 800 block of Franklin Street today and used the First Christian Church as its base, providing the homeless biscuits and gravy for breakfast, spaghetti and meatballs for lunch, and chili and tomato soup for dinner. The warm space and musical entertainment was also provided throughout the day.

Local service agency volunteers were also available, ready to offer referrals for a wide range of mental health and chemical dependency programs, veteran's programs, and victim's advocacy assistance. Temple Beth Hatfiloh, across the street on 8th Avenue, offered a medical clinic, offering flu vaccinations, blood pressure checks, vision and dental screening, and more.

Preston Anderson, a housing case manager for the Veteran's Administration, said he helped five people today and feels he would not have reached them had it not been for the event today. "The older vets, Vietnam vets especially, were often given misinformation, became discouraged and stopped searching for housing - they gave up. So now, there's more of a presence and outreach to reach homeless veterans. Anderson said he attends the once a month meeting of the Homeless Coalition Taskforce coordinated by the county.

"This point in time homeless count allows us a better chance to help a part of the population we might not ordinarily get to - an opportunity to provide services to those we might not otherwise see," said Mark Freeman, Thurston County Public Health's social service director, as he hurried around the First Christian Church kitchen, whipping up a mean batch of chili for dinner.

Mark, a volunteer who preferred that I not use his last name, arrived to help in the kitchen. Asked why he volunteered today, he said, "I'm here because I feel happier with myself when I serve the community." Mark says he is a phone volunteer for the Crisis Clinic of Thurston/Mason County.

Nicole Hill, Tumwater city councilmember, also arrived for the dinner time shift, ready to help. Asked why she offered to volunteer, Hill said, "I feel well versed in many issues, but the social service arena is my weakness, so I came to learn, help, and get an understanding for what underserved citizens are experiencing."

Hill said she also helped do some in-take interviews with the homeless this morning. Clearly moved by the experience and the stories obviously still fresh in her mind, Hill immediately choked up and took off her glasses to wipe away tears. "Hearing some of the stories was humbling...the women's stories are difficult....the domestic violence...the's heartbreaking...." That was all she could say at the moment.

Ky, the Chicken Guy

Ky, 24, said he's known as Ky the Chicken Guy because he likes chickens. So much so, he rescues roosters and tries to find them new homes. He's pretty successful at it. Ky has been homeless since April.

I found him in the tent hosted by Covenant Creatures, a local nonprofit that provides pet food and assistance to street pets and their owners, the working poor, the disabled, and senior communities. Ky was accompanied today by Squeaker, one of his chickens.

Ky grew up in Edmonds and in 2007, received a Washington Association of Vocational Excellence (WAVE) scholarship. It was his work as a certified veterinarian assistant that got him the scholarship. He moved to Olympia with the intention of going to The Evergreen State College, but in the meantime, federal laws changed that barred his attendance. So, he enrolled at South Puget Sound Community College. A year and a half into his studies, Ky says the government said they couldn't pay for the scholarship.

"Before I moved down here, I had several veterinary clinic job opportunities lined up, but then the economy tanked, and those doors closed. Then I wasn't able to pay my rent. There was tension with roommates, so I moved out, and ended up on a farm in Lacey. But then they decided to grow marijuana on the property and I wanted no part of that, so...." Ky proceeded to give me more details about his current living location and situation.

Asked if he has accessed some of the services available today, he said he got a flu vaccine. I expressed concern for his safety and comfort on cold days like this, but Ky said his chickens are like "little heaters" and he is plenty warm in his tent.

I asked Ky if he felt safe where he was now. Expressing personality, humor, and confidence, Ky assured me of all my concerns, saying he successfully intervened when he saw a man beating a woman and rescued one of his chickens from getting its head bitten off by a opossum, so yes, he felt safe, and added, "I'm in control of my happiness whether I'm homeless or not...."

"You know, I want to break down stereotypes. When I tell people I'm homeless, they've actually said to me, 'You look too well dressed to be homeless,' or 'What drugs are you on?' I'm clean and sober. I don't do drugs. I have the most boring homeless story ever."  He said his goal is to get a degree in veterinary medicine, and own several acres to convert it into a cock-fighting rehabilitation center.

Asked what he needs, he said he needs chicken feed, since people tend to give dog and cat food to agencies like Covenant Creatures. Leanne Johnson, Covenant Creatures' program director, who was nearby throughout the interview, agreed. "I also need wood shavings for them, but not cedar."

Anyone wishing to donate chicken feed or wood shavings for Ky's chickens may do so through Covenant Creatures. They can be reached at (360) 357-6301, or go to  

Above: Ky, the Chicken Guy, and his friend Squeaker.
In light of the ordinances recently passed by the Olympia city council that target the homeless community, a community conversation about homelessness will be hosted by Parents Organizing for Welfare and Economic Rights (POWER) on Monday, February 4, from 5:30 p.m. - 8:00 p.m. at Darby's Cafe, 211 5th Avenue, in downtown Olympia.

A potluck will start at 5:30 p.m. From 6:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m., homeless people are invited to speak about their experiences, then from 7:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m., the discussion will focus on finding solutions.

In last Tuesday's city council meeting, Mayor Stephen Buxbaum expressed his disappointment that the Salvation Army had decided to pull out of recent discussions regarding their involvement in providing a low barrier shelter. "I was very surprised and a little discouraged," he told councilmembers. Councilmember Nathaniel Jones also expressed his disappointment. "The city is interested in being part of the solution but we need partners."

The Olympia city council will host a study session on homelessness with Thurston County homeless taskforce coordinator Theresa Slusher on Tuesday, February 5 at 5:30 p.m. in the city council chambers.