On Thursday, the United Way of King County will hold its annual Community Resource Exchange (CRE) to provide thousands of homeless individuals and families the services and benefits they need, all in one place, on one day. Volunteers will be on hand to help secure temporary housing, sign people up for veteran or public benefits, provide employment counseling and access to medical and dental care, set up voicemail accounts, give haircuts and more.
Thursday’s program is also an opportunity to identify the homeless — a point of entry for those who may need help signing up for services. Some who will stop by are not yet homeless, but are living on the edge and just need help.
The gathering starts at 9:45 a.m. at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall. A note I received about the United Way event immediately reminded me of a short essay I wrote back in 2006 immediately after I volunteered in another annual event related to homelessness, the King County One Night Homeless Count, a street and shelter survey of the homeless in our area. In those days I worked with Rep. Ruth Kagi and others on statewide advocacy to reduce family homelessness.
I dusted off the forgotten recollection, and updated it a little in hopes that it might shed some further light on this week’s Community Resource Exchange.
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At 3 a.m. on a dark street in Seattle, I waved to a tall, rangy man in jeans and a knit cap, but kept a watchful distance in the quiet, deserted South Lake Union neighborhood. My friendly wave provoked the man to clear his throat and ask, “What are you doing on the streets this time of night?”
“We’re doing a homeless count,” I said, recognizing immediately how over-eager this must have sounded.
“Did you count yourself?” he responded.
It did occur to me that I, too, was in jeans and a knit cap and appeared a little rangy.
“What do you think the homeless look like?” he said, continuing on his way.
It’s a provocative question. In Bruce Almighty, the movie starring Jim Carey, the homeless man who persistently finds his way into the camera shot turns out to be a personification of God (played by Morgan Freeman). In our area, the homeless are young and old, living alone and living in families.
One morning each year, a few hundred volunteers gather for the annual One Night Street Count at the Seattle King County Coalition for the Homeless. The count, which began in 2000, includes two parts: a street count of the unsheltered and a survey of the homeless who are staying in shelters and transitional housing. The year I participated was the first year the count took place in January. In earlier years it has been held in October, but in 2006 the federal government mandated that all counts be coordinated so that they take place on the same night across the country.
The morning I counted the total street tally was 1,946 in King County, a slight decline from the previous count in 2004.
According to the United Way, the one-night count of people sleeping on the street increased between 2006 and 2009, but then declined 9 percent over the past three years. This has been one of the United Way’s goals in King County. In 2012 the sheltered homeless number was 6,236 and the unsheltered (street) count was 2,514.
To be sure, the street count and survey are imprecise. The goal is to enlist as many people as possible to walk the city streets and call the shelters in order to get the best census possible on a given night. The count helps those concerned about the homeless understand the population better, and many government programs for the homeless are based on the count. The count may not be scientific, but it is the best method available, and from an advocacy perspective it has a way of engaging volunteers in the problem.
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