A big day for homeless services

Camping in Seattle during the summer, when living homeless is easier. Credit: mikecogh (Michael Coghlan)/Flickr

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.

* * * * *

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.

Rising at 1 a.m., I began to prepare myself the scenes I would encounter in those wee hours of the morning. My bed was warm, my house was toasty, and my choices of protective clothing were ridiculous. If it was raining I would wear my ski clothes to stay dry and warm. But it wasn’t raining so I put on a light coat and waterproof boots for the alleys. I packed a bottle of water, a flashlight, and an energy bar (none of which I would need).

By contrast, I saw two homeless individuals (I couldn’t determine their gender) nestled into worn sleeping bags and old blankets beneath the covered doorway of something called Urban Monkeys, a sort-of day spa for kids, near as I could tell. All their belongings were gathered around them, and they slept peacefully beneath a sign that read, “play-space for all!”

My partner and I were assigned to walk a roughly 21-block portion of “Allen Town” or the “Denny Re-grade,” as the area in South Lake Union is known. We zigzagged from near downtown all the way up to the piers of Lake Union behind Daniel’s Broiler. For the most part think of the low-slung garages, parking lots, and warehouses between the lake and downtown.

It was difficult not to think of our approach toward this area in military or police terms. How can two guys cover every inch of inhabitable land in the hours between 3 and 5 a.m.? Our job was to look into every nook and cranny and return with a reconnaissance report that included total numbers of the homeless, their gender, and their location (doorway, bench, walking around, etc.). Like all of the volunteers, we took the job seriously, splitting up to walk perimeters, meet on the far-side of a block, cross off an area, and then move on to the next. In all, we found 16 homeless people. Some were walking, some were sleeping in doorways or cars.

A colleague joined a team of four women who work for REACH Case Management Project and Downtown Emergency Service Center. The areas allotted to her group were the mostly residential neighborhood surrounding Union and Central. They found just one homeless person (he was standing on the corner of the road just yelling at someone). They also encountered a person under the influence of some kind of substance (my colleague’s group members could tell immediately because they work directly with substance abuse clients).

Other colleagues joined a team from the Low-income Housing Institute (LIHI), a nonprofit, to search an area starting at Wall Street in Belltown and continuing east to Aurora and south to Roy Street. They counted 10-12 people in cars, doorways, and back alleys and one person walking around. Their overall group found 35 people.

The LIHI staff person who’d done the count several times in recent years told us that just a few years ago they would find 100 people in this same area. She attributed the change in part to the increased presence of security guards, and to the fact that some areas were  fenced staging grounds for construction sites, whereas in the past there were open lots where people would often pitch tents.

A friend walked the neighborhood where he lives at the north end of the central district.It's mainly a residential area. He found a few vans with steamed up windows, an indication of people sleeping inside. One of the vans had a very nice looking baby stroller sitting on the sidewalk next to it, with a baby bottle next to it. Would it not fit in the small van? Or did a home-owner forget it on the street? They didn't know, but it was a reminder that people with infants might well be living and sleeping in their cars. These were blocks that he had walked many times, just to go out for a walk, look at the leaves, and the mix of nice old houses, beat up houses and ugly new overpriced construction. It was definitely a different view of his neighborhood.

“Homelessness has not significantly increased in the face of unprecedented unemployment and poverty largely due to the investments made in housing and income supports," according to a 2010 Washington Department of Corrections report.

Note: Former Mariner Dan Wilson and his wife Annie are chairing this year’s United Way of King County campaign.Their goal is to raise $111 million for United Way services between July of this year and June of 2013.

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