Kristy Ellingsworth has a warm smile and a friendly demeanor, and that worked to her advantage Thursday as she stood at the Huntington Transit Center in Kennewick, approaching people waiting for the bus.
So did her personal history.
Ellingsworth, 32, has experienced homelessness in her own life. She's back on her feet now, thanks to help from a local nonprofit, and she volunteered Thursday to participate in the annual one-day count of the homeless as a way to give back.
"I've been there," she said, clutching a clipboard in the bitter cold.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the count, which is conducted around the country, including in the Tri-Cities. It provides a point-in-time snapshot of homelessness, and communities use the numbers collected to plan services. The data also helps dictate the flow of government dollars for those services.
Case managers, service providers and volunteers such as Ellingsworth fanned out to points across Benton and Franklin counties Thursday, wielding surveys.
As Ellingsworth braved the chill at the transit center, she shared some of her life story. Drug addiction threw her life into chaos, she said, and she ended up on the streets. "I lost my home. I lost everything within two years," Ellingsworth said.
She became involved with Therapeutic Innovations and Recovery in Kennewick, which operates a day center for the homeless and those at risk for homelessness. Leaders there helped her, she said, and she's clean now, with a place to stay and a plan to pursue a career in social service.
That path makes sense, she said, because "what (could be better than) having somebody help you that's been there? That's the best ... I feel like I need to do that."
Several other clients and volunteers from the center helped with Thursday's count, including Mynan Williams, 39, who also spent the morning at the transit center.
As Ellingsworth went through the survey with a woman waiting for the bus, Williams went over the same questions with a man standing in a bus shelter.
Where did you stay last night? Have you been continuously homeless for a year or more? How many episodes of homelessness have you had in the last three years?
Like Ellingsworth, Williams also has personally experienced homelessness. And she said she wanted to help with the point-in-time count to make a difference.
"If we get this all into a database, and we can get funding to help people -- that's why it's important. There's a lot of homeless people in the Tri-Cities," Williams said.
Last year's count found 324 in the two counties. Gail Brown, housing program specialist for the bicounty Department of Human Services, which coordinated Thursday's count, estimates the actual number of local homeless is at least 500, perhaps more. She said she hopes the count brings awareness. Ellingsworth does, too.
"I think that more people need to be aware of what's going on," Ellingsworth said, adding she had misconceptions about homelessness before she fell on hard times. "There's a lot of different reasons why people become homeless. It's not just because they're bad people. In reality, we're all the same."