Ilze Zarins-Ilgen knows Spokane’s homeless by name or by tent or by trailer.
“Ollie? Ollie, are you in there?” she shouted outside an olive-green tent perched along a Spokane River bank near downtown.
Someone inside the tent stirred, but no one came out. “You deal with a lot of fear out here,” said Zarins-Ilgen, who does outreach for the Community Health Association of Spokane. “They don’t want to get kicked out.”
Zarins-Ilgen checked the usual homeless haunts around Spokane on Thursday, driving from one camp to another. She was assisting in Spokane’s annual homeless point-in-time count as well as offering socks, toiletries and snacks to anyone she found.
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Efforts to find and identify the homeless were amped up this year to achieve the most accurate count possible. Some homeless advocates think last year’s count failed to represent the true homeless population figure.
The homeless count showed a marked decline from 1,185 in 2012 to 1,030 last year. Homeless outreach advocates think those figures don’t represent reality.
“It surprised me. I didn’t think it was accurate,” said Crystal Alderman, Frontier Behavioral Health’s clinical supervisor for the homeless outreach team. “Because the numbers were low, we wanted to make sure we were covering all our bases this year and going places where we know people are.”
The city of Spokane coordinates the count. Over the past two years, it has grown its partnerships with nonprofits, local government agencies and social service providers that help the homeless. This year, about 30 agencies are involved throughout Spokane County.
Volunteers fanned out Thursday to kick off the weeklong count. It seeks to include all homeless individuals and families, including youth, living in sheltered or unsheltered locations.
A main goal of the count, done in cities across Washington, is to “look for service gaps and determine where we need to allocate resources,” said David Lewis, who works in the city of Spokane’s homeless management information systems.
“It’s a very complicated event,” Lewis said. “We rely heavily on volunteers. We didn’t have many last year.”
Lewis couldn’t provide any numbers Thursday about how many among the homeless population had been contacted, but he did say “people have been busy today. It’s not always collecting data. It’s passing out fliers, connecting with people and listening to people’s stories, too.”
Zarins-Ilgen listened intently to the stories of three men who ended up living together in a trailer near the Union Gospel Mission.
“I did one line of meth 12 years ago, and my life has been messed up ever since,” said Jeremy Thompson, 35.
His roommate Joseph Frear, 27, left home as a teen to escape an abusive stepfather. “Most people won’t give us a chance. They just turn us down.”
He added, “I had an apartment for a couple months, but they kicked us out for helping homeless people. We were letting our friends take showers and stuff.”