On June 14, 2018, the Thurston County Board of Health (BoH) declared homelessness a public health crisis in Thurston County. The declaration was one of the first steps in taking a proactive approach to understanding and addressing homelessness in our region.
In 2018, the County distributed $6.2 million to 22 different nonprofit agencies in the community, which contributes to 40 different programs aiming to address homeless and affordable housing issues. The funding sources cover a wide variety of projects including funding homeless and housing services, and investing in capital projects like the construction of affordable housing. The County also helps in allocating a Community Development Block Grant which funds affordable housing, public services, and public facilities work.
The Office of Housing and Homeless Prevention within the Department of Public Health and Social Services distributes the funding and leads the County’s response efforts working with other departments and agencies to mitigate public health hazards associated with this crisis. The Board of County Commissioners created a Homeless and Affordable Housing Coordinator Position within that office to help lead this effort and provide recommendations on where the Board should focus on policy and resource allocation.
Keylee Marineau, the new Homeless and Affordable Housing Coordinator
, says, "It's easy to think of homelessness as an issue only affecting other people and communities, until it directly impacts you. We can't build effective responses to homelessness until we all see it as our shared responsibility. That’s the first step in how we build a regional homeless response plan.”
Thurston County has developed strategic tools to begin addressing the issues regionally, including the Thurston County Five-Year Homeless Plan
. This plan sets strategic goals for reducing the homeless population numbers during a five-year period, 2017-2022. The County is working to update and revise the plan to include more guidelines, as well as potential amendments to better address the emerging public health crisis.
Point in Time Homeless Census
Another way the County is working to understand homelessness in Thurston County is by participating in the annual Point in Time (PIT) Homeless Census. In 2018, the PIT counted 835 individuals as homeless or unsheltered in Thurston County, 38% of which were families with children. Officials expect to see a significant increase in that number with the 2019 PIT Census, which took place on January 24, 2019.
“I was honored to participate in the Point in Time census at ROOF (Rochester Organization of Families) in Rochester this year,” said BoH Vice-Chair Tye Menser. “The census is critical to understanding the various needs and circumstances of our homeless population. I spoke with people facing homelessness for a variety of different reasons, including job loss and disability. I was struck by the reality of the difficulty and dangers this population faces every day.”
In order for there to be a regional response to help in preventing and ending homelessness, there needs to be a clearer picture of the extent of the issue. The PIT identifies who is homeless, why they’re homeless, what services are missing, and what solutions can be made for a future where homelessness is a rare occurrence. Almost 40% of people experiencing homelessness are also unsheltered, which puts them at risk for serious long-term health problems, including severe illness and even death.
Commissioner Gary Edwards said, “Volunteering at the Yelm Food Bank during the PIT really put into perspective what we, as the Board of Health, have influence over in addressing this crisis. We need to look at our funding structures, how much we are allocating to the issue, and develop strong policies to address this as a regional issue, not just an issue in our urban areas.”
Youth have additional factors contributing to homelessness. Nation-wide, roughly 40% of young people on the street identify as LGBTQ, according to the Office of Homeless Youth 2016 Report
, and further studies by the Williams Institute show that among those kids, family rejection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was the most frequently cited factor contributing to their homelessness.
“We participate in the annual PIT homeless census to gain a better understanding of who we are helping, how we can help them, and where we need to allocate more resources,” said Chair Hutchings. “I volunteered at Rosie’s Place through Community Youth Services and saw the issue of homeless youth is not one that can be painted with a broad brush. Each person I talked to has their own story. It was heartbreaking hearing some of them say they sleep under bridges if they don’t have a bed at Rosie’s Place. It is up to us to make sure these kids know they are being heard.”
“Bill Carney once said, ‘Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say,’” said Chair Hutchings. “I want people to know we are listening and we want them to continue to help us figure out how to solve this problem, together.”
The Commissioners are holding an all-day session on Thursday, February 7, 2019 dedicated to planning for homeless response activities. The session is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., at the Thurston County Courthouse Complex (2000 Lakeridge Drive SW, Olympia), Building 1, Room 280. Agenda items include conversations with the Cities of Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater, and discussions about the role of the Board of Health, mitigation sites, and long-term and short-term action items.