A pair of volunteers walked down a streetlight-drenched stretch of Alaskan Way, one armed with a clipboard and several sheets of paper marked with columns of small circles that looked like the Scantron forms that students use for standardized tests — paper records to tally the number of people sleeping outdoors in the early morning of Jan. 27 for Count Us In, formerly known as the One Night Count.
As they walked, the volunteers noted the tents, set up in plain view on concrete beneath an onramp to State Route 99, which arcs above where it meets Columbia Street downtown. Each tent told a story about the person, or people, who lived inside: a walker parked just outside, a proud “I’m In” Seahawks decal, a small white ceramic vase with the words “Anything Helps” scrawled on it in black, desperate letters.
The volunteers darkened the appropriate bubbles.
As Matthew Shea would put it later that night, people take pride in what they have, in making their tent — in his case, a van — feel like home.
“We try to make it as nice as possible,” Shea said.
After two years living in his van in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, Shea got into housing. In the wee hours of Jan. 27, when most people would be enjoying the warmth of their bed, Shea went back to his old stomping grounds as a guide, escorting his own group of volunteers — including Mayor Ed Murray — in search of those still unsheltered.
The effort is a revision of a 37-year tradition of counting homeless people outdoors overnight. Formerly the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) ran the count, but stepped out this year as the county brought on a research firm to analyze the data with a new set of calculations. Now the county is operating the count, under the moniker Count Us In.
More than 500 volunteers in some 200 teams, fueled mainly by coffee and compassion, scoured King County’s 394 census tracts on the cold, clear night in an attempt to put a figure on the crisis that has been growing across the county for years.
For the first time, homeless and formerly homeless people guided the counters. People such as Shea were paid to identify areas where those skilled at flying under the radar might be sleeping that night.
Shea’s help was invaluable, said David Wertheimer, a volunteer who has participated in the annual counts for 12 years and the former chair of Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing, Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee. Having just gotten indoors two weeks prior to the count, Shea recognized vehicles that belonged to his former neighbors and how the seasons influenced where people chose to set up for the night.
He found an encampment of 15 to 20 tents tucked away down a small side street that Wertheimer had missed when he did a pre-count pass during the daytime in preparation for the event.
“What a difference it makes,” Wertheimer said.
The guides may have helped balance out other challenges that arose from changes to the count, such as the decision to cover every census tract in the county. Previously, SKCCH targeted known areas of habitation that volunteers and service providers scouted prior to the count.
Volunteers who had experienced the count under SKCCH marveled at the size of the areas they were meant to cover. Others remained skeptical that they could cover larger spaces with what they said were half the number of counters they’d had in years past.
Some volunteers went home just before the count started because organizers had too many, said Mark Putnam, executive director at All Home King County, the regional entity that contracts out the count.
Friday’s count stood out as much for where people could not be found as for where they were. The encampment that sprang up by Courthouse Park disappeared the week before, said Stephen Appleyard, an employee at the Downtown Emergency Services Center and five-time count participant. The team searching the Seattle Center and Queen Anne neighborhood found only four people on Queen Anne Avenue between Mercer Street and Denny Way.
“It was like people had been run off,” said Graydon Andrus, also a DESC employee. Andrus has participated in the count in some form or fashion for 18 years, although he’s normally tasked with a portion of the East Duwamish Greenbelt, colloquially known as The Jungle, under Interstate 5 from Spokane Street down to Georgetown.
Appleyard and other members of his team found many people. They had split into three pairs to tackle the downtown core from the water to Fifth Avenue. Appleyard and his partner Lindsay Haselden found 96 people while driving up and down the avenues.
The two other pairs took the waterfront, Western Avenue and First Avenue by foot. They examined every stairwell, walked down alleyways and explored nooks and crannies of Pike Place Market, which at 3 a.m. has the aspect of a shuttered carnival. They turned up roughly another 70, assuming that each tent counted for two people as they had under skcch’s One Night Count.
That method of calculation may well change this year due to new techniques employed by the California-based company leading the count, Applied Survey Research (ASR). Putnam hopes ASR’s count will be more accurate than previous counts and provide more break-out data on certain populations such as vehicle residents.
ASR’s methods had another side effect. Volunteers and advocates would not know the results of their efforts that morning, unlike in years past when the skcch ran the event. Previously, skcch would release the total number in the morning shortly after the count, with headlines splashing across news pages as people were just finishing their first cup of coffee. This year’s number will not be revealed for several months, much to the frustration of advocacy organizations who use the statistic to galvanize support to combat homelessness, particularly during the legislative session already underway. Advocates will head to Housing and Homeless Advocacy Day in Olympia on Feb. 2 — when homeless people, low-income residents and advocates converge on the Washington Legislature to advocate for policies and funding — without this year’s number.
The new number, when it comes out, won’t be comparable to previous years because of the changes in how it was calculated. That means that no matter how many people were found on Friday morning, it will be inaccurate to claim that homelessness has gone up or down by any specific percentage as 2017 will serve as the new baseline for future counts.
Even so, Count Us In mobilized hundreds of housed people in service of their less fortunate neighbors and that by itself counts for something.
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