Construction cones lined an eerily silent street in the Central District as a group of volunteers weaved their way through small parks and driveways. Clutching clipboards and maps, they kept their eyes peeled for any movements in hidden alleyways, shaded corners or foggy car windows — signs that would signify life in the early hours of morning.
Hundreds of other volunteers were doing the same. They met at headquarters around King County and dispersed into the dark to tally the number of people living in vehicles, doorways, tents and more for the One Night Count, an annual effort led by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH). From Federal Way to Shoreline, volunteers trekked through city centers, neighborhoods, parks and greenbelts, working in teams to report how many people are living in places unfit for human habitation in King County.
This year, volunteers tallied 4,505 people living unsheltered — a 19 percent increase from last year’s count, which found 3,772 people homeless.
Even before SKCCH tallied and tabulated the numbers, volunteers could tell that homelessness had grown since last year.
“We’ve spoken to many people who have come back tonight who are very seasoned and experienced in working with people who are homeless and in helping people get housing,” SKCCH Executive Director Alison Eisinger said. “All of them have said to me that this was really hard this year.”
The numbers are unable to paint a complete picture of homelessness in King County, but they provide a minimum number. Volunteers cannot count every single person due to the sheer inability to reach every part of King County. Yet details of the count point to a shift in the places and situations where people are found.
The number of people in Seattle experiencing homelessness rose by a little less than 5 percent, but areas in south King County saw a surge in homelessness. For example, Federal
Way saw a 150 percent increase. The north end saw double the amount of unsheltered people compared to 2015.
“With all the gentrification in this city, that is impacting people and where they are, where they are moving and being forced to go,” said volunteer Cathy Speelmon.
Speelmon, Law Enforcement Assistant Diversion manager for the REACH program with Evergreen Treatment Services, said in addition to finding groups of people sleeping in doorways, her team also noticed a city bus that drove by during the count that she said was clearly full of those experiencing homelessness. The relatively warm winter night may have also contributed to the higher number. Speelmon says she saw a lot of people walking Seattle streets. This year, volunteers saw more than 500 people walking around.
During the count, a group of volunteers came across rundown RVs on either ends of a park tucked within a residential area in the Central District. Volunteers heard a man yelling from within an RV, breaking the quiet of the night as they made their way around the block.
Mayor Ed Murray’s recent announcement of two designated lots for people residing in RVs and vehicles is meant to provide an alternative to these scattered and unstable living situations. Together, the lots will provide space for 50 vehicles — barely alleviating the numbers of car campers witnessed during this year’s count. The One Night Count tallied 1,608 people in cars, trucks or RVs in King County, hundreds more than in 2015.
These numbers have a significant impact on the resources and funding for services provided to homeless and very low-income people in Seattle and King County, according to All Home, a county-wide effort to make homelessness rare, brief and one-time. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development distributes federal funding for services for low-income and homeless people. The department requires the numbers gathered during the One Night Count.
Volunteer counters expressed concern with the variables that made results of this particular count unpredictable regardless of the anecdotal increase that advocates noted throughout 2015. Many public and residential areas were under development and fenced off — possibly impacting spaces that may have been used for shelter, as well as limiting volunteers’ ability to count roped off areas.
Additionally, the deadly shooting that killed two people in the unauthorized tent encampment known as The Jungle between Beacon Hill and SoDo, combined with the city’s increase of tent cleanups and the November 2015 state of emergency declaration, added a particular level of tension to this year’s count.
SKCCH is continuing the conversation with “Beyond the One Night Count,” two free workshops in Ballard and Kent that will take place on Feb. 24 and 27 respectively to encourage advocacy regarding housing justice. To learn more, visit bit.ly/skcch.