Every January, volunteers head out into the cold and wet to get a head count of the more than 3,000 people sleeping outdoors across King County. At the same time, county officials and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) tally the number of people in shelter and transitional housing.
By the end of the night, they had one important number to report: Volunteers found 3,772 people sleeping outdoors in King County.
Now the Committee to End Homelessness – King County (CEHKC) is digging deeper into the numbers to see exactly where homelessness is growing, where improvements have been made and what the demographics of the county’s homeless population is.
In short, CEHKC found that homelessness among veterans and chronically homeless people is on the decline, the number of unsheltered people is on the rise and that people of color are disproportionately represented in the homeless population.
The areas where homelessness declined is the result of focused strategies, said Mark Putnam, director of the CEHKC.
“When we know the strategies that work and we apply evidence-based practices, we see those people being housed,” Putnam said.
The One Night Count sent out about 1,000 people around King County from 10 command centers to tally the number of people living outdoors on Jan. 23. Prior to the count, Mayor Ed Murray predicted that the number would be higher.
Homelessness has visibly grown in Seattle, with people sleeping in doorways and tents lining freeway greenbelts and downtown parks. But even with this record-high figure, advocates say the population of homeless people is likely larger. A thousand volunteers cannot count every person sleeping outdoors in the county.
The base numbers have grown. The 3,772 people volunteers found outside is the largest ever in the count’s 35-year history. The total was 21 percent higher than the 2014 count.
The county also looked at the 6,275 people staying in transitional housing or emergency shelter. Taken together with the unsheltered population, the county had 10,047 people experiencing homelessness this January, an 8.1 percent increase over the previous year.
More people stayed in emergency shelter this year — 3,282, a 13 percent increase over the previous year. skcch Executive Director Alison Eisinger said that is likely due to the expansion of shelter beds in King County, so the increase is good news.
The decreases in this year’s One Night Count were seen in veterans and chronically homeless people.
The county’s analysis of the One Night Count tallied 668 veterans living unsheltered or in shelter or transitional housing, a decrease of 8 percent. Unsheltered veteran homelessness taken alone decreased 15 percent.
Putnam attributed this to a stronger emphasis on programs serving veterans in the area. The county is working to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015 and is already seeing promising results with the help of local and federal dollars.
The population of chronically homeless people also dropped by 20 percent, Putnam says, because of increased funding and support for that population.
Eisinger said these results show that fully funding programs to support homeless people work.
“Where there has been deliberate and significant investments of resources — i.e. permanent supportive housing for people who are chronically homeless and disabled and support for veterans who are homeless — guess what? It works!” Eisinger said.
She said the results are a reminder for every level of government to consider the scope and scale of investments. Stronger investments could save human lives and millions of dollars in the long run, she said.
Despite the positive news, Putnam continues to be concerned by demographics of homelessness.
People of color make up the majority of those who are homeless, despite the fact that King County is 71 percent white.
In all, non-white people make up 59 percent of the homeless population.
African Americans make up 42 percent of the homeless population — the largest single racial demographic among homeless people.
“We see a much higher rate of homelessness among African Americans, and we’ve seen that for a number of years,” Putnam said.