The sun shone brightly by noon on the first day of June, warming the City Hall Plaza after the clouds gave a half-hearted attempt at rain that morning. A small group of people gathered under two easy-up canopies, donning jackets as breezes came and went.
Anitra Freeman, a formerly homeless Real Change board member dressed in a black Real Change T-shirt and dark pants, stood in the plaza with a megaphone in hand. A bronze gong hung from a stand on her right.
“We have to do more,” she told anyone who would listen. “For the sake of our souls.”
For nearly two decades, volunteers across King County have scoured city streets and tucked-away corners counting people that they find sleeping outdoors, in tents and in cars in the pre-dawn hours of the last Friday in January. And every year until 2017, the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) announced the number found, a total that has been increasing rapidly.
The Real Change Empowerment Project translated that number into an event that could not be ignored. Called “The Day of Mourning,” people swaddled in winter coats lined up in the cold to hit the gong once for every person found unsheltered, a meditation on the urgency of the homelessness crisis facing Seattle.
The sound reverberated through the empty air, rising past the City Council Chambers on the second floor of City Hall, through the building to the seventh floor and the Office of the Mayor, where the deep tone remained clearly audible for the nearly four hours that it took to get through the number.
But this year was different. All Home King County, the umbrella organization that coordinates county-wide homelessness efforts, released the numbers on May 31, four months later than usual. The attendance, Freeman noted, was sparse compared to previous years. The weather, a balmy 69 degrees, topped temperatures from the last gong show by 17 degrees.
It was 33 degrees warmer than the night of the count.
Advocates have waited for All Home to release the number with trepidation. How much higher would the number be? And how much political energy and will for change would melt in the warming months until the release?
The answer to the first was forthcoming.
Volunteers counted 11,643 people experiencing homelessness in Seattle and King County. Of those, 5,485 were found sleeping outside or in cars, tents or recreational vehicles. Another 3,491 were in emergency shelters, and 2,667 in transitional housing.
That constituted an increase of 955 in the total number of people counted, and an increase of 980 in the number of unsheltered folks compared to the 2016 count.
The numbers devastated, but did not surprise.
Most people within the government and advocacy communities anticipated an increase, possibly even a dramatic one.
First, with rents rising rapidly and an influx of an estimated 200 people a day to the city of Seattle alone and a lack of comparable additions to housing or emergency shelter, there was little chance that the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in recent years would hold steady or drop.
Second, All Home chose to conduct the count differently than in years past, outsourcing the project to Applied Survey Research (ASR), a California-based firm that works with several West Coast communities.
ASR designed a new methodology. Instead of counting in “known areas” where past experience predicted they would find people, teams of three and four volunteers and a homeless or formerly homeless guide searched 396 out of the county’s 398 census tracts, leaving little out.
It captured a large swath of land called the East Duwamish Greenbelt, commonly referred to as The Jungle. In previous years, SKCCH tallied people in The Jungle, but avoided areas under the freeway during the 2016 count because of a shooting that had happened just days before. Hundreds of people were living in The Jungle at the time, people who would be chased out in a massive sweep of the area just months later.
ASR also changed the methodology of counting folks sleeping in tents or in cars. In past counts, SKCCH multiplied the number of structures and vehicles by two, providing a quick estimate. ASR instead extrapolated a separate multiplier for vans, cars, RVs, tents and abandoned buildings.
None surpassed a multiplier of 1.8, meaning that although more cars and campers were found than ever before, the count was less than if the methodology mirrored previous years.
The broadened scope did more than potentially improve the accuracy over previous counts. It also provided political cover for the city and county, a statistical escape hatch through which officials could evade inevitable comparisons to previous years as advocacy groups splashed percentage increases on outreach materials and pop-up ads.
The charged nature of those numbers, and the human misery that they represent, could be defused or deflected.
“With this new methodology, we feel like comparing previous years’ data to this year’s count is an apples-to-oranges comparison,” said Mark Putnam, the executive director of All Home King County.
Putnam, Adrienne Quinn and Catherine Lester sat at a desk in the King County Council chambers and walked through the numbers for members of the King County and Seattle City councils.
Their facts, the result of a survey conducted in the two weeks after the count, cast false light on the popular myth of the drug-addicted, mentally ill out-of-towner, here to leech off of the good citizens of “Free-attle.”
What they found instead: Homeless folks are overwhelmingly our neighbors, people who had housing in King County and lost it for any number of reasons, be it illness, divorce or addiction. The most common reason, however, was job loss and the ever-increasing rental costs in one of the hottest real estate markets in the world.
Despite leveraging vast resources from the city, county and United Way — the third largest local funder to end homelessness — the network of government and service providers have not been able to stem the rising tide.
“I came here four years ago and asked, ‘What does it take to solve this?’” King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski said. “I’m still kind of looking for, ‘What do we need to make a material dent in it?’”
The policies that government and nonprofit leaders adopted have made a dent. The data suggest that if no one else fell into homelessness over 2016, the crisis would be over. More than 7,500 households found permanent housing in 2016, enough to solve homelessness in the area.
“We’re housing more people than ever,” Putnam said. “Those resources that we’re spending are being used, I think, more wisely.”
Those figures belie problems in the counting, however.
All Home doesn’t track people after they move into housing. The only way they know if someone returned to homelessness is if that person goes back to access services in the same system. Leave King County or fall back in with an abusive ex — 6 percent became homeless because of domestic violence — and the system will never know.
It’s one of the problems that providers have with rapid rehousing, the policy du jour for getting people inside. It provides a voucher that subsidizes rent dependent on a person’s income, but unlike other interventions, it lasts only three to six months.
The numbers say that 95 percent of households that use rapid rehousing in King County stay housed two years. Absent an expensive longitudinal study, the data are imperfect. They don’t mention that only 61 percent of voucher holders are able to find an apartment to rent, and only after a four- or five-month search on average.
Policymakers know the solution to homelessness is housing, but pulling policy levers to get housing costs down and meet people’s needs? That’s an undertaking that extends far past the borders of King County.
Homelessness, Quinn said, is like climate change.
“Homelessness is not just a local problem. It is not just a statewide problem. It is not just a national problem,” Quinn said. “It is a worldwide problem.”
It will take more than government intervention to end homelessness. It will take a revolution.
But who will lead it, and will the community have the stamina to sustain the push?
Some question why the community should spend so many resources on people who, in their eyes, don’t want to help themselves. They support pushing homeless people around the city in endless sweeps, jeopardizing their thin grasp on stability.
They hold onto policies that have not and will not work by willfully mistaking the problem and ignoring the objective reality of the solution.
And yet hundreds of volunteers walked the streets in Seattle and King County between 2 and 4 a.m. to complete the count. Thousands support Real Change vendors, acknowledging their shared humanity with a smile, a greeting and support. People volunteer, innovate and rally to help their houseless neighbors.
They do it out of kindness, even love, but the reward is not one-sided. As Freeman said, they’re fighting for their souls.
Abigail Daquiz, a volunteer board member at the Seattle Community Law Center, held the mallet before the gong and struck.
The sonorous tone rang out, a ring that signified one person. A person who lay out in the 36-degree temperatures a few months ago. A person with a past, a present and an uncertain future.
Daquiz let the last vibrations of the metal disk die out before delivering another blow.
Onlookers watched curiously, wondering if she was OK, why she froze until the instrument fell silent before sounding out again.
“I didn’t know what it would feel like to ring the gong,” Daquiz said later. “Not knowing the name of the person it’s ringing for. It didn’t feel right to begin again. It’s the smallest thing.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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