King County's homeless count rises above 11,600 people

Homeless Count Rises
Homeless Count Rises

The results of King County's annual count of people experiencing homelessness are in, and show another large increase from the year before.

The results of King County’s annual count of people experiencing homelessness are in, and show another large increase from the year before.

More than 11,600 people were tallied in this year’s point-in-time count — with 5,485 of them found to be living on the streets, in motor vehicles and tent encampments, according to figures released Wednesday.

Last year, volunteers counted 10,688 people, with 4,505 of those living without shelter. The rest were living in emergency shelters or transitional housing at the time of the count.

The number of people living without shelter in Seattle also rose. Nearly 4,000, or 70 percent, of those found sleeping outdoors were counted in the city.

In November 2015, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine jointly declared a civil state of emergency over homelessness.

Murray said it would come to an end only after a “significant reduction in the number of people dying on our streets … and a significant reduction in the number of school-age children who are homeless.”

Since then, the number of people living and dying outdoors in King County has steadily climbed.

What’s the reason behind the increase?

Improved methods for collecting data and an overall rise in the number of homeless contributed, said Mark Putnam, director of All Home, the group that organizes the annual count.

Volunteers also covered more ground, including the East Duwamish Greenbelt in Seattle, home to The Jungle, a notorious homeless encampment left out of last year’s effort after a shooting there left two dead.

Adrienne Quinn, King County director of community and human services, said that while the county and city are collectively guiding more people into permanent housing, there are even more becoming homeless for the first time.

According to a survey conducted as part of the count, 40 percent of the 1,131 people surveyed reported becoming homeless at some point in the last three years.

“As fast as we’re moving people into a permanent situation, more people are coming into the system,” she said.

The results come several months after the Jan. 27 count, a departure from previous years in which the tallies were released the following day.

Renamed Count Us In, this year’s countywide attempt to document the region’s homeless featured several other changes designed to improve the accuracy of the tallies.

In previous years, hundreds of volunteers searched areas of the county where homeless people were known to congregate, looking for those sleeping in tents, under overpasses and in cars. The 2016 count found about 700 more unsheltered people than the 2015 count.

This year, teams of volunteers and formerly homeless people acting as guides fanned out across all but two of the 398 census tracts in the county.

Twenty percent of the 5,485 found living without shelter on Jan. 27 were counted in the southwest part of the county in cities such as Burien, Auburn and Kent. An additional 5 percent were in Bellevue, Kirkland and other Eastside cities.

All Home officials have stressed that the numbers are, in the end, minimum estimates, and differences in methodology make comparisons to last year difficult.

In addition to a physical count, All Home also conducted a survey to improve tallies of the number of teens and young adults living without permanent shelter.

All Home worked with California-based Applied Survey Research (ASR), which has carried out more than 50 counts for other communities, on a demographic survey of the region’s homeless.

The results back up findings from a previous survey conducted by the city of Seattle, with a majority of responders reporting living in King County at the time they became homeless.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires communities from around the country that receive federal dollars to conduct annual counts to track homeless numbers.

Jeanne Kohl-Welles, chair of the Metropolitan King County Council’s health and human-services committee, applauded the report as “more comprehensive” than previous iterations.

But without a standardized methodology, it’s difficult to know how local strategies to reduce homelessness stack up against those of other regions, she said.

“It’s hard to tell because we don’t have comparable data,” she said. “Having it is important because we’re getting good results, but the problem obviously continues to grow.”

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