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Counting them in: King County surveys its homeless youth

Last year's Count Us In survey tallied 778 homeless or unstably housed young people in King County. Credit: Alex Garland

Who qualifies as a “Homeless Youth or Young Adult (YYA)?” Is it only young people who, night in and night out, sleep on the street? What about kids who couch surf? Or who get kicked out for one night after a fight with their parents? And where do we find these young people? On the U District’s Ave.? At the YMCA? In shelters?

The truth is, homeless and unstably housed youth are hard to find; often, they don’t want to be found. So how do you quantify — and serve — such an elusive demographic?

King County has been conducting its annual Count Us In survey since 2011 in an effort to do exactly that, steadily gathering information on the number and status of local 12-25 year olds with no stable home. The Count Us In event — and it really is an event — takes place on one evening in January thanks to an impressive coordination of county resources and staff: libraries, service agencies, health clinics, churches, shelters, parks, community centers and other non-traditional settings, in some 70 locations, from Auburn to Mercer Island to Shoreline, all participate. (The annual count is part of the Comprehensive Plan to Prevent and End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness in King County by 2020.)

At each counting station volunteers offer some kind of incentive to encourage the target audience to stop by and take the survey: pizza, video games, bus tokens, socks, gloves, deodorant, toothpaste. Whatever it takes.

My Count Us In afternoon starts in Auburn at the Auburn Youth Resources (AYR). AYR is a collection of old buildings — an old motel, some A-frame sheds converted to offices and two old houses, one for younger kids and one a drop-in center for teens and young adults. Young people trickle in. Some in couples, most alone. Peanut butter sandwiches are the draw here. The staff hands them out along with the surveys. In the hour I spent at AYR, about a dozen kids come by, eat sandwiches, fill out surveys and leave.

Count Us In is different than the nationwide One Night Count, which happened Thursday night. Part of the federally funded Point-in-time survey, Night Count is an effort to assess the county’s entire homeless ppoulation. Last night, some 1,000 volunteers took to the streets between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. to physically count each homeless individual in King County, wherever they may be, in shelters, tents, parks, cars, etc. The Night Count survey method targets, as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development calls it, the “literally homeless,” meaning people with no roof over their heads.

Count Us In, on the other hand, has a different strategy and a broader focus. “A lot of youth are not technically homeless,” explains Megan Gibbard of King County’s Youth and Young Adult Initiative, “but [they] have housing questions.”

The Count Us In survey, for example, never asks “Are you homeless?” Instead, it asks such questions as:

  • “Where did you stay last night?”
  • “Where did you live in the last 3 months?”
  • “Do you have a place where you can sleep at night on a regular basis?”
  • “Has there been a time in the past when you didn’t know where you would be sleeping at night?”

The questions are multiple choice; all kids have to do is check boxes.

Their answers paint a picture of the issues YYAs can face when it comes to finding a stable place to live. Gibbard remembers one young boy who was staying with his grandmother. Sounds pretty stable, but his grandmother never gave him a key to the house or a space to put his clothes.

My second next stop is the Burien Library, unique in that it doesn’t kick kids out for sleeping there. “What’s the difference between homeless kids taking a nap and someone nodding off while reading?” says Melissa, the library’s manager. Every Thursday, the library hosts a game night for YYAs. It wasn’t designed specifically for young people with housing problems, but many of those who come don’t know where they’ll go when game night ends. On this particular afternoon, one teenager is playing Guitar Hero on the library’s massive screen.

Count Us In started in King County and has become “a national model,” says Gibbard. “We’re beginning to see it grow in other places as well.” The key to its success is the collaboration with institutions like the library in Burien or shelters like YouthCare’s James W Ray Orion Center in downtown Seattle and ROOTS in the U District. All are easy places to find YYAs and collect data.

Expanding into libraries and community centers is essential, because surveys filled out out in those locales can capture young people who may struggle with housing, but don’t seek resources or support so much as a temporary refuge from some trouble on the street or their current living situation. The King County Library System, says Gibbard, reached out to the Committee to End Homelessness first. Now the Committee partners with both King County and Seattle libraries all over the region.

The 2014 Count Us In found 779 youth either homeless or in unstable housing. The 2013 number was an astonishingly similar 778. “The community needs to understand this issue,” says Gibbard. “And it’s important for them to know that the number is manageable.”

The consistency of the two numbers would suggest that the survey is right on the money. More likely, it’s a pretty impressive coincidence. Everyone involved acknowledges that the survey system could be improved. For Gibbard, the biggest challenge is outreach. For now, the county relies mostly on posters and word of mouth. Both, she says, are effective ways of communicating within the YYA community. Still, there are surely many who don’t know about the survey.

The Mockingbird Society is one of the many local nonprofits that participates in Count Us In. This year, the origanization sent out four of its youth advocates: Trai, Lamar, Sierra and Clay. They spent their evening doing what Erin Hatheway, Mockingbird’s Public Policy and Communications Coordinator, calls a “meta-survey”; that is, taking a survey of the survey. Mockingbird’s hunch is that the 779 number from 2014 is too low. Lamar speculates that the actual number is probably closer to 2,000. To try to test that theory, Mockingbird team members are conducting a companion survey in two locations: the Burien library and Ballard.

Team Mockingbird: Trai, Lamar, Sierra and Clay
Team Mockingbird: Trai, Lamar, Sierra and Clay. Credit: Alex Garland

The Mockingbird Society focuses primarily on youth who’ve been in foster care. Organization staff run training and leadership classes that prepare these young people to be vocal participants in foster care reform. Three of the four Mockingbird youth advocates on hand to conduct the Count Us In “meta-survey” were formerly homeless.

One of them, Trai, grew up in South King County. Trai was homeless when she was younger and this first-hand experience led her to suspect that the Count Us In survey numbers were low. Mockingbird’s survey asks youth, essentially, “Do your friends know about this survey?” And if they don’t, why?

“My friends don’t go to drop-ins,” says Trai, explaining that many YYAs don’t even show up for resources, let alone something like Count Us In, because when they think of resources for the homeless, they think adult shelters, which can be scary places for kids. “Youth only know about adults,” says Trai. For many, the adult homeless population means violence and drugs. Better to stay hidden.

Erin Hatheway, Mockingbird’s Public Policy and Communications Coordinator, calls Count Us In “one of the best counts in the nation.” But, she cautions, it’s important that its totals be as accurate as possible. If the Count Us In number is low, then countywide funding won’t reflect the real need on the streets. That’s especially apparent in South King County, where Auburn Youth Resources is the only drop-in center. This resource deficit, says, Hatheway, is why Mockingbird dispatched its team to Auburn and Burien. “There’s a need, but there aren’t enough resources,” she says.

AYR used to operatee South King County’s (SKC) only emergency shelter as well, but that facility closed last year for lack of funding. “We didn’t do anything wrong,” says one SKC staff member. “There just wasn’t enough money for us.”

Trai, who spent her homeless time in SKC, described an “extremely big difference” between being homeless in Seattle and resource-challenged SKC. “It makes it harder when you’re not in Seattle,” she says.

These days, when young people in SKC need help, AYR staff are often forced to send them north to Seattle. “But it’s not like they have a car or even money for the bus,” says Trai. “They still have family down here, so going to Seattle is sort of like going away to college. Even when they get [to Seattle], they may not get a bed.” The county’s many YYA service providers hope Count Us In efforts will produce numbers that better reflect the need and help them distribute the limited resources appropriately.

For my final stop on this year’s Count Us In survey day, I head north from Burien to a parking lot on Rainier Avenue. Nature is manning a table outside a game truck — that’s like a food truck, but with video games inside. She hopes the truck will attract YYAs to stop by and fill out a survey. She volunteered for this Count Us In duty, “because it’s important,” says Nature, “especially for this neighborhood.”

The game truck is parked near King Donut. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the owners were brutally attacked and robbed last month. Nature bought 10 boxes of donuts to support King Donut — and feed her young targets. “The media only talks about all the violence down here,” she says. “But they don’t talk about the problems with unstable housing. No [reporters are] here for this, but I guarantee you if there was a shooting, they’d be everywhere.”

For Nature, the survey is important because it asks about more than just housing. It asks if young people have a job, if they’re in school, what grade they finished last. Megan Gibbard agrees that such questions are an extremely important part of the survey. “We go deeper,” she says, looking for trends in race, sexual orientation, neighborhood, anything.

Nature points out that the successes of youth and young adults in her Rainier Valley neighborhood were not captured in last year’s survey results. “A lot of kids don’t have somewhere to live, but they’re graduating high school,” she says, calling that achievement the “struggle to success.”

But what’s most amazing, says Nature, is that these young people who have wrestled with homelessness and many other challenges “make it all the way through school and no one notices they don’t have stable housing.” Against all odds, they often get good grades, hold down jobs, sometimes even go to college.

“No one notices their achievement,” laments Nature. Even though it’s hiding in plain sight.

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