It felt warm for January in Seattle. People were marveling at it, even joking about it, but at 4 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 25, it didn’t much matter. The fact that Seattle’s clime felt unusually moderate was likely cold comfort for the man wrapped in blankets sleeping underneath Interstate 5.
He wasn’t trying to hide, but it was still hard to see him in the dim light. Michael George, a candidate running to replace Councilmember Sally Bagshaw in District 7, noted his presence on a form attached to a clipboard.
The man was one of only a few counted in census tracts 65 and 66, a large expanse of Seattle that stretches from Volunteer Park and the ornate mansions that surround it to the bank of Lake Union where a person can take a ride on a sea plane for $95.
He will show up in the annual homeless count, a number submitted to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) at least every other year to enumerate the number of people experiencing homelessness in the United States. That number has been growing every year, primarily driven by increases in West Coast cities like Seattle.
Between the hours of 2 and 6 a.m., more than 1,000 volunteers spanned the length and breadth of King County to complete the annual point-in-time count that plays a role in allocating federal money to help house people without homes.
Led by guides who have themselves experienced homelessness, the volunteers fanned out to walk or drive the streets of King County, noting each person and tent that they see. Vehicles were also counted based on whether they appeared lived-in, with signs such as foggy windows.
Volunteers, team leaders and guides gathered at the Compass Housing Alliance building at 77 S. Washington St., next to a section of the viaduct that will soon be demolished. Some stayed outside smoking cigarettes while others waited for the door to open so they could get warm and grab a cup of coffee.
Anthony Fuga, a guide, stood outside the room where guides gathered, waiting for the night to kick off. He was tasked with walking a team through a section of Seattle that he knows well. While Fuga passes the time until his program at the Divers Institute of Technology begins in February, he has been sleeping outside, very near where he would be walking that night.
Folks like Fuga are key to the count because they have insight into where people take refuge at night; they get paid for being a guide and also improve the accuracy of the census. It is a hard thing to get right, and any point-in-time count likely underestimates the number of people sleeping on the streets at any given time.
That means, despite the fact that the number increases year on year, the figure that comes out in several months will likely be smaller than the actual number of people sleeping rough or in shelters. As of 2016, the methodology of the count changed so that Applied Survey Research (ASR), the company that tabulates the count, makes an estimate of the number of people who sleep outside. In the past, every tent and vehicle that looked lived in counted for two people. ASR estimates the number of people who stay in such rough shelter, and that number has consistently been less than two for each form of shelter.
If King County used the methods employed by Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, the numbers could look worse.
As it stands, the only significant difference between the 2018 and 2019 counts were that All Home King County, the organization that is putting on the count, didn’t use specialized teams to count populations like vehicle residents. It turned out that there was between 80 and 90 percent agreement between the results submitted by specialized teams and volunteers, said Kira Zylstra, acting director of All Home King County.
Chances are the number of people experiencing homelessness that were counted in King County between 2018 and 2019 will increase. Home prices aren’t ballooning as quickly as they used to, but it’s still a very expensive and desirable place to live.
The inability to tax rich people means that households in the lower quintiles of income will continue to pay a larger percentage of their earnings in state and local taxes than those at the top. Evidence shows that people are becoming homeless here, not generally moving here only to become homeless.
The crisis is real, and although the system is putting more people into homes than ever before, the number of people surviving without shelter has consistently grown.
It will take a massive investment in housing to make a dent in a catastrophe that has taken decades to create. The extent of the emergency will only become clear in the summer when ASR crunches the numbers.
The last time they released the homeless census was May 31, 2018. The high was 65 degrees that day.
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. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Read the full Jan. 30 - Feb. 5 issue.
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