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Homeless numbers reflect a more concerted effort by local survey volunteers

YAKIMA - Build a better mouse trap and the world will be at your door.

Offer more services and volunteer help, and you'll draw out more homeless for a survey.

That was the result of a homeless survey conducted in Yakima County in January of this year.

Results from the survey were revealed yesterday, Tuesday, during the Yakima County commissioners' weekly agenda meeting.

The 2009 survey counted 1,314 homeless in Yakima County, up from 1,055 in 2008.

By far the biggest jump was in Sunnyside, which saw the reported homeless population more than double from 219 in 2008 to 498 in 2009.

The result is not surprising, as the count in Sunnyside this year featured an unprecedented outreach to count the homeless, including transportation as well as one-stop food and services for the homeless at St. Joseph's gym during the count.

None of the other Lower Valley cities had an outreach to such an extent.

Tim Sullivan is the manager for the county's housing and homeless program. He says the large increase in numbers in Sunnyside and other Lower Valley areas, like Granger (from eight homeless reported in 2008 to 62 this year) and Mabton (from 52 to 85) is in large part due to an improved effort in counting the homeless in rural areas and smaller cities.

That was echoed by County Commissioner Mike Leita, who during the presentation yesterday said the numbers primarily represent not an increase in the number of homeless, but an increase in the effort and volunteers available to do the counting.

An example of that is in the services most requested by the homeless.

In 2009 there were 204 homeless who said they needed dental services compared to none in 2008. That big jump is in large part due to the fact that Sunnyside offered dental inspections this year which were not available in 2008.

Sullivan admitted after the meeting there were some factors that skewed the numbers. Factors not indicated in yesterday's presentation.

"That's the difficult part of this, it's not a clinically scientific survey," he said.

Grandview, for example, mysteriously dropped from reporting 50 homeless people in 2008 to just nine this year.

Sullivan said that's because the agency he relied on for that count, the Salvation Army, was closed during the survey period.

He confirmed there are likely many more homeless people in Grandview, a city of 9,000 people, than just the nine listed on the survey. He pledged that the county will make an improved effort to count Grandview's homeless next year.

Sullivan also said the Sunnyside numbers may be skewed because the city has more social service agencies than other Lower Valley cities.

One outcome of the larger count in the Lower Valley is that this area should be in line for more money to help the homeless.

Sullivan said Yakima County just last week received federal assistance for the homeless to the tune of $1 million to be paid out over three years. He said most of the money will be designated for the Lower Valley.

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