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Homeless count offers only a rough sketch of a growing epidemic

Homeless in Seattle Credit: Daniel García Peris

Volunteers found 4,505 people without shelter Friday morning in the woods, in tents, and at bus stops throughout King County. That number is undoubtedly low; the darkest corners offer the most privacy. But it’s the trend more than the final number that tells the story: The number of homeless is up 19 percent from last year, 32 percent over the last two.

The One Night Count is an annual “moment in time” snapshot of the region’s unsheltered. Volunteers are staged across the enormous swath of space between Auburn and Bothell, Vashon Island and Snoqualmie Pass. The strategy is simple: Find people without a roof and tally. In a world of anecdotes and speculation, the count provides the closest thing to hard data around the problem of homelessness.

In Federal Way, about 30 volunteers – some who work in the city, some with faith-based organizations, some cops putting in extra hours – fill the city’s Multi-Service Center at 1:30 a.m. Manuela Ginnett herds them into groups, making order out of the tired chaos. Steve Miller works for the city’s Public Works Department. He will begin his day in five hours, but he’s cheerful nonetheless. “It’s something different,” he says.

Volunteers in Federal Way prepare for One Night Count.
Volunteers in Federal Way prepare for One Night Count.

Jeff Watson, a community services manager with the city, is the lead of one group that includes Miller, Hollie Shilley also of Public Works, and an escort, Federal Way Police Officer David Johnson. They’re given a wooded area of the city, a yet-undeveloped gray area between cul-de-sac neighborhoods and business parks.

With a flashlight and a clipboard, Watson high-steps through brambles and roots, over creeks and mud puddles. The others follow. The search is somewhere between a game of hide and seek and a manhunt, made more tense by the chatter of Johnson’s police radio.

Signs of people are everywhere. Every 50 yards or so the group finds a clearing filled with shoes, shopping carts, sleeping bags, collapsed tents, couches and toys. One gets the feeling of being watched, but the space is abandoned and does not count.

Around one corner, the group sees a well-ordered clearing of tents. It looks habitable enough that Watson decides to mark two. Then a man’s voice from the clearing asks, “Can I help you?”

“We’re doing the homeless count,” responds Watson.

The man stands up, shielding his eyes from the flashlights in his face, and greets the searchers like neighbors on the street: “Oh, OK. There are three of us here.”

“All adults?” asks Watson.

“Yes,” the man says. “You need ID?”

“No, thank you,” says Watson. He revises his count up one more before the group moves on.

Jeff Watson and Hollie Shilley examine their route for One Night Count.
Jeff Watson and Hollie Shilley examine their route for One Night Count.

This year’s count comes at an intense time. Mayor Ed Murray, with King County Executive Dow Constantine and the mayors of several other cities up and down the West Coast, declared a homelessness State of Emergency last November. The debate between those who favor crackdowns on people living in RVs and those who advocate for a public health-minded response has become vitriolic. And on Wednesday, as Murray gave what was meant to be a call to action about homelessness, gunmen shot five people in an encampment in SODO.

Despite record spending in Seattle, services for the homeless are at maximum capacity. Representatives from Union Gospel, the Bread of Life Mission, the Downtown Emergency Shelter, Compass Housing and YouthCare all report turning people away almost every night. Outside Seattle, the CEO of Everett Gospel Mission Sylvia Anderson tells a similar story. “We’re absolutely full every night,” she says. And in Federal Way, Watson is not shy about saying that the problem vastly outstrips the resources the city can provide. Officer Johnson admits that he encourages people to leave Federal Way for Seattle or Tacoma, where there are more services.

The Count is meant to put a number on the resource gap. “It helps us,” says Mayor Murray. “It helps me anyway.” All last year, conversations in City Hall and beyond leaned heavily on the 2015 number; 2016 will be no different.

“In order to be able to get funding from the feds, we need to be able to count folks who are sleeping in the city,” says City Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez. She and her staff participated in Friday morning’s count, scouring downtown. “It’s really important for us to have a structure in place to do that.”

But there are limits, a fact few will deny. Driving down Pacific Highway in Federal Way, a man jogs across the street. Does he count? Young people notoriously deny that they are homeless, often saying they are just staying with friends. Do they count?

And while 4,505 is a stunning number, hearing the stories of service providers makes you wonder just how low that is. Jackie O’Ryan of Compass Housing says they have 12,000 active mailboxes in their downtown facility. Compass’s emergency services manager, Wayne Wilson, says 2,000 individuals come through his group’s hygiene center – with six showers for men and one for women – every year. And they’re not even the biggest hygiene center in the city.

Federal Way Police Officer David Johnson and City of Federal Way employee Steve Miller take a break.
Federal Way Police Officer David Johnson and City of Federal Way employee Steve Miller take a break.

Further, there is a tenuous balance when it comes to learning about who these people actually are while respecting privacy. In Federal Way, nearly twenty cars scatter an otherwise empty parking lot. The windows are fogged with condensation and blankets double as curtains, clearly occupied. In one, a man is a reading his book. Volunteers counted these cars, but didn’t stop to ask who was inside.

“It doesn’t give us the data to know where people are coming from,” says Mayor Murray. “It doesn’t give us the data of where they came from in the first place.”

Understanding the root causes of homelessness – why people are where they are – is key to addressing the problem. But, like medics in war, service providers resist greeting their clients with a laundry list questions for fear of scaring them off or suggesting that it matters whether you’re from Seattle or not.

Compass’s Wilson says they do offer a two-page survey, which asks for basic information. That information goes to King County’s Safe Harbors database. But that only registers people who use services, and Wilson says that a lot of people opt-out, especially those struggling with mental illness. “Mentally ill people don’t want to be put on a register somewhere,” he says.

So, for the most part we’re left with speculation. At shelters, some administrators guess their clientele are mostly from Seattle, priced out of an explosive housing market. Others say that as many as 75 percent are from outside of Seattle, here to look for work. Mental illness and addiction are generally seen as pervasive, but to what extent remains a question mark.

The first clue that this year’s Count will come out higher than last year’s comes at about 4:30 a.m., as groups trickle in from walking their circuits. The number in Federal Way is at 263. Last year it was 113. Manuela Ginnett shakes her head. The last time the number was even close to this high – 181 in 2011 – was because people had already been cleared out of ravines for fear of flooding. No such action has been taken this year.

Bill Reddy, chief operating officer at Compass Housing, predicted the overall count would be higher before the count even began. Does 4,505 mean something? Of course. But more than that, he says, is the trend. The operation surely doesn’t account for everyone, but so long as it’s carried out in the same way every year, it should tell us whether the solutions and money we’ve thrown at the wall have stuck.

By 2016’s count, so far they have not.

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