Count Us In survey shows numbers of homeless youth holding steady

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This year's Count Us In survey tallied 824 homeless or unstably housed young people in King County.

Each year for the last five years, King County has set out to census its homeless population in two different ways: The One Night Count tallies anyone living on the streets; the Count Us In survey targets youth and young adults (YYA) who are homeless or unstably housed.

This year’s surveys took place in the evening and early morning of January 22nd and 23rd. On Thursday afternoon, members of King County’s Committee to End Homelessness will present the results of these 2015 homeless surveys, but they gave Crosscut exclusive permission to publish those results first.

This year's One Night Count showed a 20 percent increase in the number of people living on the street. In contrast, Count Us In volunteers recorded 824 homeless or unstably housed youth, a number that, while up a bit, has held remarkably steady for the last three years. In 2013, Count Us In volunteers recorded 778 YYAs; in 2014, they counted 779.

The 2015 Count Us In respondents were evenly split between male and female (403 of each), with nine identifying as queer and another nine as “Other.” Most were in their late teens and early twenties, nearly half fell between the ages of 19 and 22. This 2015 demographic breakdown is very similar to the 2014 results.

It’s hard to know what exactly how to interpret this Count Us In uniformity. Do the steady totals accurately reflect the number of young people who struggle with housing in King County, or are the consistent results an artifact of the way the survey is conducted?

Megan Gibbard, King County’s Homeless Youth and Young Adult Initiative Project Manager, sees the consistency as evidence of a solid baseline number against which to measure the successes and failures of King County’s efforts to provide stable housing for young people. “We know we’re not going to get an exact number,” she says. “But for us, [the consistency] bodes well. Our numbers [of homeless youth] are relatively stable and we’re able wrap our arms around [the problem] a little better.”

Unlike One Night Count, Count Us In volunteers don’t drive through King County making note of every YYA they spot on the street. “Count Us In is a deeper dive,” said Gibbard. “What we know nationally and locally is that a street count is not the best way to count YYAs.”

Gibbard and Mark Putnam, the Director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County (CEHKC), explain that Count Us In is an attempt to learn a lot more about the kids. "If One Night Count is an umbrella," says Gibbard, "then Count Us In is like a scuba diver."

This year’s report shows that only 133 of the 824 youth surveyed were actually sleeping on the street. Most of them, 322, were staying in transitional housing; 199 were in shelters; the status of the remaining 170 was unstable, meaning they were couch-surfing or staying with family members temporarily.

Finding these unstably housed YYAs, the ones who while not on the street still struggle to find housing, involves an immensely collaborative effort. To help alert the homeless youth community about the Count Us In survey CEHKC relies on partners like The Mockingbird Society, which works to improve foster care in King County, and YouthCare, a resource organization for homeless youth. Here's how the survey works:

On one night in January, a corps of County employees and volunteers sets up tables in the Seattle and King County Public Library branches, community centers, shelters, even outside arcades. Anywhere homeless youth are apt to gather. Volunteers use incentives like soap, granola bars, bus tickets or games to get YYAs to take part in the survey.

One challenge for Count Us In is that YYAs don’t always like to admit they’re struggling to find housing. So rather than ask “Are you homeless?” the survey poses subtler questions, such as:

  • “Where did you stay last night?”
  • “Where did you live in the last 3 months?”
  • “Has there been a time in the past when you didn’t know where you would be sleeping at night?”

The 2015 Count Us In results were consistent with a few widely-accepted notions about youth and young adult homelessness:

Black youth are at higher risk for homelessness. In the 2014 survey, 32 percent of respondents were African American; in 2015 that number inched up to 34 percent. By contrast, African Americans represent about 6 percent of the county’s overall population. Knowing why African Americans are so disproportionally affected is difficult, says Gibbard, but it’s a question that the county is committed to answering. (Gibbard and a panel of experts on youth homelessness can be heard grappling with the disproportionality question in this podcast from last month.)

Count Us In shows that LGBT youth are also at risk. Both 2014 and 2015 results showed that 22 percent of homeless YYAs who took the survey identified as LGBT. There are no hard and fast numbers, but that 22 percent figure appears to be between two and five times higher than the proportion of LGBT youth in the general population.

So what does King County do with this data?

For one thing, says Gibbard, “we can use these numbers to project need and gap . . . and figure out: Are we meeting the need?” Count Us In’s focus on the deep dive, as Gibbard puts it, is designed to help the county do just that: better tailor its services to the actual needs out there on the street.

“Young people have very specific needs,” says Kristine Cunningham, Executive Director of Seattle’s ROOTS shelter. “They don’t feel safe in shelters with older people. They’re not experiencing homelessness in the same way.” Gibbard agrees, adding, “Shelters are only effective if there’s a path out of shelters.”

Last month, the United Way released a report showing how factors such as drug addiction, parental involvement and high school GPA are good predictors of the likelihood that a youth in foster care will end up homeless when he or she ages out of the system. That kind of data excites Megan Gibbard, who is hoping to take a similar data-driven approach with homeless YYAs. In fact, CEHKC has applied for funding that would let them mine their own databases for a more objective look at the factors that contribute to homelessness.

That data, says Gibbard, along with five years worth of Count Us In surveys should help the county “develop strategies directly tailored to the communities that are most likely to end up on the streets.”

CEHKC is also also in the midst of finalizing an updated plan for the Committee to End Homelessness, part of a general refresh to its overall approach. Officials will release those changes in the coming months.

For now, the upstream, preventative efforts will focus primarily on connecting youth and young adults to family members. The Count Us In survey showed that 47 percent of respondents had spent at least one night with a family member in the last three months. “The most compelling thing about Count Us In is how connected young people are to families,” says Gibbard. “Not every person will return to their family, but if there’s a connection there, we have to develop a communication strategy.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.