New results from the annual count of people experiencing homelessness show a 5 percent increase in the number of people found in shelters and on the streets as well as persistent disparities in how homelessness impacts Black and Indigenous communities.
The report, released by the new Regional Homelessness Authority, shows homelessness jumping from 11,199 to 11,751 people — numbers that include those in shelter and sleeping rough. The increase erases some of the gains seen between 2018 and 2019, when the count fell by nearly 900 people.
Fluctuations in the point-in-time data are not unusual, said Leo Flor, director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services. That’s why policymakers look at multiple databases, such as the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), to identify trends and provide a more comprehensive view of how homelessness presents in King County.
Some data trends remain stubbornly entrenched, no matter where you look.
“Across all years and multiple data systems, we continue to see the effects of structural racism in human services systems and health systems,” Flor told reporters. “Racial disproportionality continues to show up in a persistent and painful way.”
Although the majority of homeless people in King County are white, white people are underrepresented compared to their overall numbers in the county’s population. The opposite is true for most other marginalized communities, most glaringly Indigenous and Black people.
Indigenous people make up .6 percent of King County’s population, according to the 2018 American Community Survey, but are 15 percent of the homeless population. Black people are 6.3 percent of the population, but represent 25 percent of the homeless population in the county.
Policymakers have had success shrinking some groups of homeless people, such as veterans and youth experiencing homelessness, but that happened through sustained investment at multiple levels of government, Flor said.
“When we take a look at and recognize these persistent, painful inequities among Black or African American and Native or Indigenous communities, we can see what it would take to move these numbers down,” Flor said.
The wildly disproportionate number of Indigenous people in the homeless population represents an increase from the previous year, when 10 percent of the population identified as Indigenous or Native. That itself was a large increase from 3 percent in 2018.
The soaring numbers were a shock and are disheartening, said Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, but they represent a bitter victory in that they more closely reflect reality compared to the undercounts of the past.
“Part of what we’re seeing is that we have invigorated the Native community to get involved in the point-in-time count,” Echohawk said. “We’ve been vastly undercounted for years and years and years.”
Echohawk said that Native people are wary of government systems and avoid documentation in HMIS, and that they were convinced to participate demonstrates the importance of Native and people-of-color-led organizations in homelessness services.
Two other groups — victims of domestic and gender-based violence and homeless families — also surged in 2020, which policymakers attribute to a concerted effort to bring them into the homeless services system rather than a massive increase in new cases.
That’s in part because while the numbers in the point-in-time count leapt up, the overall trends track downward, particularly with homeless families.
The discrepancy is partially because of the nature of the point-in-time count. It’s generally accepted to be an undercount, and can change based on modifications to methodology, classification of shelters or even weather.
On January 24, when 300 volunteers scoured King County to create the count of unsheltered homelessness, there was heavy rainfall compared to the previous year. That could make it harder for volunteers, who often ride in vehicles, to count as many people as they could have in 2019.
The analysis created by VN (Vega Nguyen) Research uses the point-in-time count along with other datasets to create a portrait of King County’s homeless population — one that draws potential red flags for the future.
The report shows a large increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time, and survey data indicates that more people had difficulty making rent, although a smaller percentage cited eviction as the reason that they became homeless compared with 2019.
That precarity existed prior to the onslaught of the coronavirus, which has shoved millions out of work nationally. According to the Washington Employment Security Department, there were 165,577 unemployment claims in King County in May 2020 compared to 11,724 in May 2019.
Landlords cannot yet evict tenants for nonpayment of rent, but those debts continue to accrue. Experts warn of a deluge of evictions when the tenant protections are lifted.
“The indicators are there that if we don’t have continued social services and support or the underlying economic conditions do not change quickly,” Flor said, “we expect this would put a lot more people at risk of homelessness over time.”
The next point-in-time count is expected to take place in January 2021.
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 more in the July 8-14, 2020 issue.