For the first time in seven years, the number of people tallied in King County’s annual point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness dropped, and no one is precisely sure why.
The decreases were dramatic — the total count went down by 8 percent overall, from 12,112 to 11,199, with the largest change in the number of people sleeping unsheltered — 17 percent. The count of people sleeping in shelters went up by 3 percent.
Vulnerable subpopulations also decreased. Families experiencing homelessness dropped by 7 percent, veterans by 10 percent and unaccompanied youth and young adults by a massive 28 percent.
Finally, the number of sheltered people (5,971) exceeded the number of unsheltered people (5,228), reversing the result from the previous count in which unsheltered homeless people outnumbered those in shelter.
The numbers are good news, but officials should contain their celebration and continue pushing aggressively to get more people inside, said Kira Zylstra, interim director of All Home King County, the group that organizes the regional response to homelessness.
“We are encouraged, but at the same time, it’s really important we don’t use this as a time to pause, but really dig into what we know is working and not slow down our effort to address the crisis,” Zylstra said.
Why the numbers are dropping is a harder question to answer.
In the press release accompanying the count, All Home reports that “the rate at which people are becoming homeless outpaces the ability to house them within existing resources” despite very real improvements in the number of households that the existing system has been able to serve.
The 17 percent drop in unsheltered homelessness is particularly puzzling, given that the system added slightly more than 530 new emergency shelter beds in 2018, and contacts with the homelessness system are increasing.
Part of the difference could have come from the modification in what the federal government counts as “shelter.” Under the new rules, tiny houses — small, insulated homes for temporary shelter — could qualify as shelter, unlike previous years. According to All Home board minutes, five of the city-funded camps with 159 tiny houses became shelter for the purpose of the count.
All Home did not release the detailed report that has accompanied the count numbers for the past two years. That will come by the end of the month and include more specific geographic and demographic data, officials say. However, they did release a new dashboard that tracks the number of households served and what services they accessed.
One such measure, which looks at entrances to and exits from homelessness, does show that 1,300 more households “exited” the homelessness response system than entered it, which could account for some of the decrease.
However, “outflow” means more than exits to permanent housing — that figure also includes temporary housing, exiting a program as unsheltered, dying and becoming “inactive,” meaning the head of household has not accessed services in 90 days.
In September 2018, All Home purged the rolls of 3,800 households deemed inactive.
The population of homeless people is large and dynamic, said Daniel Malone, executive director at DESC, the largest shelter provider in the city. It’s difficult to impossible to know where everyone goes if they simply stop contacting the homeless services infrastructure.
“The outflow that happens, the bulk of it is unknown,” Malone said. “People stop using the system.”
Malone is waiting for the more detailed report, which will illuminate where homeless people are exiting and who they are. Looming large is the fact that early numbers suggest that Indigenous people are highly overrepresented in the homeless population, climbing from 3 percent in 2018 to a staggering 10 percent in 2019.
Indigenous people make up less than 1 percent of Seattle’s population overall.
The revision is bittersweet, said Colleen Echohawk, executive director of Chief Seattle Club, an organization that fights for Seattle’s Native homeless population. On the one hand, the dramatic shift in the numbers means that more Native people are being found homeless. On the other, it was only through the inclusion of Native people in the process that an accurate accounting of Native homelessness could be made.
“It was through the coalition’s work and the four agencies that are a part of that that is why this number changed,” Echohawk said.
Ultimately, the point-in-time count is one measure of the homelessness crisis here in Seattle, and even as the numbers appear to decline, the problems of housing affordability, mental health, substance abuse and eviction are far from solved.
Now is the time to hit the gas, and not the brakes on solutions, Zylstra said.
“There are still more than 11,000 people, and knowing that’s an undercount, it’s still a crisis,” Zylstra said. “It is far too many people who don’t have a place to be at night. If we took this as a celebration, we run the risk of slowing down.”
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
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