The number of people living outdoors in Washington state rose 25 percent over last year, according to a new report by the state Department of Commerce.
The report combines data from each county’s Point in Time Count, a survey of homeless people conducted every January to receive federal funding.
Since 2008, the yearly count has mostly decreased. But this year, it jumped to 6,289 people, up from 5,043 people in 2013.
“I wasn’t expecting to see a 25 percent increase,” said Rachael Myers, executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. “It’s extremely troubling.”
Many county-level coordinators attribute the increase to a combination of improved counting strategies and the soaring cost of rent, according to Point in Time Count Coordinator Nick Mondau, who compiled the statewide data.
Counties use different counting methods depending on the number of volunteers they can deploy. In King County, for instance, almost 1,000 volunteers spent Jan. 24 combing the streets for homeless people. But smaller counties conduct less thorough counts, for instance by offering free haircuts, food and other services to attract homeless people to locations where a small number of volunteers can easily count them. With more volunteers, some counties may have counted more homeless people, even if the actual number of homeless people stayed the same.
But the actual number of homeless people likely increased too, Mondau said. The average cost of rent has increased 14 percent since 2006, according to data from the Department of Commerce. Meanwhile, the state median income has decreased by
4 percent, and the rental vacancy rate has decreased 13 percent.
What’s more, the state legislature’s lackluster commitment to social services can’t have helped people on the edge of homelessness, Myers said. “We’ve seen reduction in safety net services at the national, state, and local levels,” she said. After an intense battle, the state legislature barely renewed the Document Recording Fee, a $40 surcharge on real estate filings used to fund shelters and other services for homeless people.
“That whole fight was just to maintain what we’re currently doing,” Myers said. “These numbers make it clear that we need to do more.”
Although the state has other sources of data on homeless people who live in temporary housing, the Point in Time count is the state’s only source of data on homeless people who aren’t served by the state.
In addition to a total count, the Department of Commerce will soon release a breakdown of the total by county and demographic traits, such as race and past homelessness.
A few counties have already released their numbers. King County volunteers found 3,123 people living outdoors, up 14 percent from the 2,736 people found last year.
Commerce staff will use these numbers to identify counties and subpopulations that are especially underserved and recommend solutions in the department’s annual report on homelessness, according to Tedd Kelleher, managing director of the Housing Assistance Unit. Last year the department recommended renewing the Document Recording Fee, which was set to expire in 2017.
Mondau said he was interested to see how the number of chronically homeless people responded this year to a new strategy of placing homeless people directly into permanent housing, rather than placing them first into transitional housing. The state defines chronically homeless as having a disabling condition and being homeless for a year or more, or being homeless four times in the last three years.
Meanwhile, homeless advocates are concerned: “We will be talking with state legislators about this,” Myers said. “We will point to these numbers as evidence that we need a real increase in affordable housing.”