Even before this week’s annual Homeless Count, Penny Gazabat had the unofficial numbers for the Key Peninsula.
Gazabat, the executive director of Key Peninsula Community Services, and Brett Huggins, its food bank manager, ask clients about their housing status.
Huggins said his data show 132 people living in tents, cars and trailers parked on someone else’s land.
“They’re everyday people from all walks of life,” he said. “It’s getting worse as time goes on with the foreclosures. I’m seeing families and younger people from 19 to 30 who can’t find jobs. I see people moving into shacks.”
At the end of Thursday’s official count, however, the organizers had a different number – a far smaller number – that they will give county, state and federal governments.
Each year, the federal Let’s Make Everyone Count initiative aims to get accurate information on who is homeless, where and why. It was started when President George W. Bush launched a 10-year plan to end homelessness.
The count is effective with certain people in certain places. Shelter, meal and drop-in center providers have built an efficient system.
Many of those living in shelters have addictions and health problems. They are the regulars, the 10 percent who use 50 percent of the resources. They know the annual count collects the data that direct money toward the services where they’re needed most.
Locally, the count is modestly successful with that population, said Rae Anne Giron, community services planner with Pierce County Community Connections.
The Key Peninsula, however, is unique – separated in identity from the rest of Pierce County just as it is separated physically by the Narrows bridges and the Purdy Spit.
There’s an old chasm between the wealthy and the poor; assortments of old mobile homes scatter on acreage next to well-tended farms and estates.
The nature of homelessness on the KP has changed rapidly since the economy tanked, and it’s an uneasy fit with the one-day count.
Lately, the food bank has pleaded with its clients to allow themselves to be counted.
Last year only six did, for understandable reasons.
Parents fear that if they tell authorities they’re homeless, their children will be taken from them.
People with low-paying jobs are at work.
Veterans with post-traumatic stress and hair-trigger tempers stay hidden in the woods
Teens on their own fear being sent to foster care.
Proud people don’t want to admit to strangers that they’re homeless.
“They don’t want to be classified that way,” Huggins said.
Teresa Neal, 36, sure didn’t. She needs dentures, and on Thursday morning she had come to a bus at the KP community services center that provides one-stop help from the state Department of Social and Health Services.
“I am not telling anyone I’m homeless,” Neal announced as she got off the DSHS bus.
A friend persuaded her to rethink that. Her information might bring dollars – and maybe even a more frequent dental van – to the area.
Neal, who grew up near Horseshoe Lake, left her information with Joan Hymas, a volunteer from St. Nicholas Catholic Church, who gave her a new coat, warm socks and a fleece blanket.
Gazabat booked the DSHS bus for Thursday, hoping it would be a draw. Like the open food bank, it was.
Volunteers Megan Beck and Steve Wickline went looking for homeless people to count in parks and parking lots.
Beck stays in touch with park rangers, who often can tell if a family is cycling between parks.
You can rent a camp site for $20 a night, Beck said. That’s $600 a month, which isn’t cheap, but it’s a solution for parents who can earn $20 a day but can’t save first and last month’s rent and pay deposits.
This recession has been unhealthy for KP people, Beck said.
“People who were just getting by, this stuff has tipped them back over the edge into old addictions,” she said. “A lot of them are going back to their parents, where they learned that behavior.”
The annual homeless count is held the last Thursday of every January. If Gazabat were in charge, she says she’d hold it on the first Thursday, instead. That’s when the food bank is busiest because food stamps have run out.
And she would run it long enough to gather the data that reflect the real face of homelessness on Key Peninsula.