Mental illness and abuse still influence homeless

Thanks to the efforts of 200 volunteers from local charities, high schools, churches and state offices, the 2011 Thurston County Homeless Census was released in late January. According to the census report however, there may be a significant margin of error in the county’s findings.

Volunteers toured the county asking people as to whether they were, or ever had been homeless, what their cause of homelessness was, their age, where they lived and other important questions.

They found that demand on public and charitable services has reportedly increased since 2010, yet the 2011 census count of 566 is far below 2010’s count of 976. The number is also largely inconsistent with the census data trend dating back to 2006.

This is said to be due to a number of factors. One of which is that a portion of homeless people refused to participate in the census due to mistrust of the government and fear of evacuation.

South Puget Sound Community College student Stephanie Mutek said, “I want nothing to do with the homeless census. Every time the census is held, dozens of homeless are suddenly flushed out of the woods/sleeping spots by the police. This is a vicious cycle of discrimination and it is sickening to me that this garbage continues.”

The census report stated that most popular homeless camps had already moved to more discreet and rural locations.

Also included in the report was that the effectiveness of local charities and social programs may have caused the dramatic reduction in the count.

The Olympia Union Gospel Mission is one such institution that has been working to help the homeless since 1995. According to its Executive Director Skip Stephen, the Mission has three branches of outreach, Street Ministry, Residential Drug and Alcohol Recovery Programs, and Health services.

Street Ministry includes, hot meals, showers, laundry, clothing, toiletries, crisis counseling, etc., said Stephen.

The recovery program includes help for men, women and single parents. Health Services deals with emergent dental, vision and chronic disease primary medical care.

The programs the Mission offers have become a community mainstay. “My sense is that the Mission is respected in the Olympia area overall, including the homeless community,” said Stephen.

The Mission has also observed a critical trend that was reported by the Homeless Census. According to the county, nearly half of those counted were suffering from some sort of mental illness.

“The sad reality,” said Stephen, “is that mental (and other) health services for low income and uninsured are being cut across the board…and in the case of mental illness [the behaviors of homeless people] make them easy to marginalize by the rest of society.”

Such behaviors whether they are due to mental illness or otherwise have led to many Olympia businesses trying to keep homeless people from loitering near their storefronts. Familiar claims have been that frequent pan-handling or busking, playing instruments or performing for money, will drive away business.

A local community member who wished to remain unnamed said, “It’s public space, and everyone should be able to occupy that space.” He continued to say that there should be a mutual respect between the public and local businesses.

“They need to understand that the business owner also has a right to that space too,” he said.

A particularly sobering aspect of the Homeless Census was its statement that 18 percent, 102 people, of our county’s homeless are under the age of 17.

The anonymous citizen said, “I think that some younger people leave their homes to pursue ‘houseless-ness’ as a way of life, but more so I think that it is because they are trying to get away from unsafe situations at home.”

The data collected in the previous five census’ has helped to more efficiently allocate government resources in Thurston County. Over $10 million was spent in 2010 and 2011 on low-income housing projects and other social services.

SPSCC student Angeline Mertz said, “I think that the Homeless Census has really helped the community to focus on the needs of the less fortunate in our area. I wouldn’t mind volunteering myself next year.”

Published: Feb. 27, 2012 here.