Inside King County's homeless count: the uncertainties and the lessons

The annual counts are anything but exciting espionage. But getting an accurate number is harder than you might think, and perhaps ultimately more rewarding. 

Crosscut archive image.

Panhandling in Seattle. (Seattle Channel)

The annual counts are anything but exciting espionage. But getting an accurate number is harder than you might think, and perhaps ultimately more rewarding. 

In the early hours of last Friday (Jan. 27), an army of 800 volunteers combed 13 cities in King County, block by block, in search of a very elusive demographic: people who are homeless and “roughing it” on the streets.

That search, called the One Night Count, found 2,594 people on the street, a three percent increase from last year, when volunteers counted 2,442 people. People were found “in cars, tents, all night buses, select hospitals and curled up in blankets under bridges or under doorways,” according to a press release sent out by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH), the organizers behind the One Night Count. 

But that number is not just meant to be some statistic — the organizers know that the number is fairly imprecise and largely inadequate  — but rather it also serves as a source of inspiration, an advocacy tool in Olympia, and a way to bring communities together to fix problems.

The number does not reflect homeless people staying in shelters that night. The count from the shelters will be released, along with a bigger report, toward the end of February. Last year the number of sheltered homeless people was 6,382, which put the total number at 8,824. With the little variation seen in the trends from year to year, it's reasonable to expect around the same number.

On paper, the One Night Count can sound like a cool espionage mission. A team of people tread quietly through the cold night wielding flash lights, keeping their eyes open, peering into dark spaces within trees and hard to reach places. Some people without prior experience expect to uncover some kind of hidden village of homeless people, or to become privy to some deep, dark secret of King County.

But the reality is far tamer, perhaps boring for some. You walk around in the cold, chatting with the rest of your team of four or five volunteers, and find very little sign of people living on the streets. In my team's search in Federal Way, we found a whopping total of 12 people, most of whom were in vehicles — by no means less important, but not quite as stark a situation as one might imagine encountering.

Much the same difficulty in finding homeless people was, if the statistics are any indication, prevalant in other areas. There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is that homeless people are highly mobile, constantly looking for places to stay warm and, perhaps more importantly, stay out of sight for safety reasons.

"A lot of people go to great lengths not to be noticed, because that’s how they survive," SKCCH Executive Director Alison Eisinger said. "We respect that, and we know that’s a reality. We really made peace with the fact that we’re not going to count every single person."

To counter the shortcomings of a count done with volunteers, some communities around the nation have resorted to employing those who are or who have been homeless to help with their counts. But even those with street smarts have found it hard, because where homeless people were last year, or even last week, may not be where homeless people are now.

Additionally, to scour every corner of a community in search of the homeless, vast amounts of resources are required — too vast to be either practical or worthwhile. While SKCCH has managed to create a large regiment of volunteers dedicated to the cause through 30 years of partnering with local institutions, developing into what is now the largest community-organized effort in the nation, there are still holes in the map that they are unable to fill. Eisinger said that the count here has only been able to cover spots where there was adequate community interest, meaning that some places, even if a sizeable homeless population might exist, are for the time being uncounted.

So far Tukwila and SeaTac, which both undoubtedly hold a significant homeless population, are not part of the One Night Count. Eisinger said SKCCH is trying to work with communities to bring the count to those places in the future, but she was unsure of when that would be.

One extra difficulty is the timing of the event. It can be harder to find people in the inclement weather, and the count happens at the end of January, because the Department of Housing and Urban Development under the George W. Bush administration made that a requirement. Those who haven't retreated to some hidden, sheltered (and hopefully slightly warm) spot are found mostly in vehicles. Out of the 2,594 people counted on the street in King County, about 790 — or 30 percent — were people thought to be living in vehicles. Those living in impermanent structures, such as tents, numbered only 348 people.

The method for counting people in vehicles and structures causes further trouble. For every vehicle and structure where the exact number of inhabitants cannot be seen (which are most if not just about all, due to fog, ice, curtains, or cardboard blocking the windows), two people are counted. Considering the high percentage of the count that comes from these two categories combined, this method could lead to overcount or undercount. However, finding out the exact number within would be too troublesome and disruptive to bother with, so organizers are left with their hands tied, hoping to strike some semi-accurate middle ground.

There are other methods used to count homeless people, but King County, which has been able to develop its method for over 30 years, when "Operation Nightwatch" performed the count, has one of the most extensive counts in the nation.

Communities that have been unable to collect together such large resources have made do with other ways. In Travis County, Texas (where Austin resides), the point-in-time count is performed during the day, from 1 p.m.-7 p.m. Furthermore, they survey every tenth person to create a random sample of what the homeless population looks like. Last year, only 250 volunteers performed the count, a paltry number compared to King County, and they counted about 1,000 people.

Eisinger said that by counting at night, volunteers did not have to bother with issues of discerning who or who was not homeless as much, and they did not have to disrupt homeless people's lives by bothering them with survey questions. Furthermore, Travis County's method of counting seems unable to differentiate those who find shelter at night from those who rough it outside. Still, flaws aside, this writer (and several other volunteers, I'm sure) might have appreciated a count that did not extend from 1:30 a.m. to an hour at which people have already started morning commutes. 

However, Oregon's Multnomah County, has developed a few extra methods that could add more depth to King County's method. Outreach workers spend the week prior to the count, connecting to various homeless encampments and completing surveys on anyone who sleeps outside on the night of the count. Likewise, more than 150 agencies and programs conduct short surveys with anyone they encounter sleeping outside. Then, on the night of the count, shelters make a record of everyone they turn away.

It may be possible to learn from this example of  taking extra efforts to connect and survey homeless people roughing it the week before the street count takes place. This would appear likely to give a fuller and slightly less sparse picture of homelessness on the streets. But whether the amount of resources required for such actions justifies the end result is a different question. (Also, it should be noted that, despite the extra techniques employed, Multnomah County by no means has a more expansive count: they recorded only 1,532 people a year ago.)

In a press release, Director of the Committee to End Homelessness Bill Block acknowledged that the One Night Count was just a "snapshot" of a far greater problem. The press release went on to say that the organizers recognize the "count is an undercount of people without shelter on this night. Counters can reach only a portion of the geographic area of the county, and many homeless people sleep in hard-to-reach places."

Indeed, if one looks at the year-to-year statistics, one sees no valuable trends jumping out from the street count. In 2009, the total was 2,827; in 2010, the total went down to 2,759; in 2011, the number went still further down, to 2,442; but in 2012, the number jumped back up slightly, to 2,594. So, for a while, it would seem we were seeing a trend going downward, but since the numbers are so close together and since the data has so many variables, there simply isn't enough difference to proclaim "Homelessness went down this year" or "Homelessness is sky-rocketing!" Instead, Block says, the numbers are there more to educate people.

“The street count is an awareness count [not an accurate count], so the citizens who aren’t homeless get a sense of how many people are suffering under homelessness,” he said in a phone interview.

However, Block also said that what they do see as a genuine trend is a generally small decrease (around 4 percent) in the total count from year to year, which combines both the street count and a shelter count. While he seemed unsure of how accurate the percentage truly was, he said he felt it was a sign of gains in combatting homelessness.

What we are left with then is a minimalist painting. The viewer must connect the dots between the locations that are covered and see the hidden details which are only glazed over. We know that there are somewhere around 2,600 people who roughed the streets the night of Jan. 27, 2012, but the reality is probably even greater, causing for a much grimmer picture. Which brings us to another point.

What the One Night Count performs best is education and advocacy, not hard stats, and indeed SKCCH wields the event as such.

For one, the count provides statistics for the homeless which are not found anywhere else. These statistics serve as an indispensable learning tool. They can be used to demonstrate to a community that the need to help the homeless is real, and that there are at least so many people living on the streets without any practical shelter whatsoever. This can be especially pertinent to communities where homelessness isn't so obvious, such as Federal Way.

Multi-Service Center CEO Robin Croak, one of the people whom I went on the One Night Count with, said it was sometimes hard to gain funding because people did not realize homelessness was a problem in Federal Way, where her office is. There are no shelters outside of churches, and since there is no dense downtown core like there is in Seattle, the homeless are much more out of sight. The statistics, she said, give her something to show the problem is real.

Secondly, the One Night Count can also serve as a learning opportunity, not just for those who only see the results, but for those who volunteer for the event. It not only brings the volunteers face-to-face with the problem — for example, when they see someone homeless wandering the streets in the frigid cold — but it also gives them a chance to talk to someone who is more aware of the problem for a couple of hours. In both of the years that I have gone  on the One Night Count, I have spoken to people involved deeply in the communities. I was able to learn more about the problems specific to those places and what was being done to address those problems.

This learning opportunity can be geared not just to typical citizen volunteers, but also to city, state, or even federal officials and elected members who are invited to participate in the event. This year, two Obama officials joined in on the King County count: U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness Deputy Director Anthony Love and Dr. Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Perhaps the most powerful use of the One Night Count can be found in the state capital, where homeless advocates can use the information and the people inspired by the event in an attempt to counter budget cuts during a seemingly forever-volatile legislative session.

After the One Night Count, postcards were handed out to volunteers to sign in support of funding assistance for homeless people. Five hundred or so of these postcards, which say "I believe everybody should have the opportunity to live in a safe, decent, affordable home!!" on the front, have already been sent to the state Legislature. The back of the  card urges support for sustaining safety net programs, increasing housing and jobs, preventing youth homelessness, and passing the "Fair Tenant Screening Act," which would make it harder for landlords to arbitrarily reject possible tenants based on misinformation provided by screening reports.

Volunteers (as anyone else interested) are also encouraged to go to "Homeless Advocacy 101" workshops, which take place at various places throughout Seattle and Kent. These workshops are meant to take any passion people experienced during the One Night Count, or as a result of it, and turn it into something productive.

What SKCCH is trying to do, in part, is transform their army of volunteers into an army of homeless advocates. According to Eisinger, this is driven from an idea that homelessness shouldn't be accepted as part of the everyday norm, that it is in fact a crisis (albeit a very long, ongoing crisis), and that it is something to be looked at with great concern and care.

Lastly, the statistics from the One Night Count can be vital to grant applications, perhaps most significantly from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which awards the meaty McKinney Continuum of Care grants across the nation. Last year, the grant program  awarded $21.8 million to King County, which went towards several social services, including the support of 1,776 units of housing; according to a King County press release — 754 units of transitional housing and 1,022 units of permanent housing for homeless people with disabilities.

With two years left on the calendar of King County's "10-year Plan to End Homelessness," one may think that efforts to stave off or defeat homelessness is useless. However, instead of looking at the data from One Night Count — which, after all, shows homelessness slightly increasing this year — as a sign that these efforts are useless, one could also look at it as a sign that other effects, such as the condition of the economy, are causing the problem of homelessness to overwhelm or at least work against the successes of the efforts of advocates and social services. 

Even though the picture the One Night Count draws is incomplete, even a cursory glance at the outcome reveals a deeply imbedded problem. So, while SKCCH continues to work on improving its method and its reach for counting homeless people, there is a larger reality documented by years and years of reports: the unexaggerated fact that there are thousands of homeless in our midst.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors