The results of the annual point-in-time count in King County are finally out. It took 160 days to completely cook the stew this time. I think that may be a record. It took so long that I had actually forgotten there had been a homeless count in January this year.
The biggest surprise for me, reading the data, was the shift in two categories of counts by location type: street/outside considerably down (by almost 700) and abandoned buildings very much up (by more than 420). The report suggests that the reason so many people found shelter in abandoned buildings was that on January 24, the morning of the count, it was raining like it doesn’t usually rain in Seattle/King County. The other missing people could be just hard to see in the rain or accounted for by the fact that counters weren’t supposed to go inside the buildings.
The explanations sound pretty reasonable to me, but still leave me with a big surprise. How did 420 homeless people manage to find that much accessible shelter in abandoned buildings on such short notice? Is there an app for that? I want that app. Say it starts pouring while I’m out and away from home. I want to be able to whip out my phone and search for an abandoned building within a block or two with a known unlocked first floor window or door.
Never underestimate the resourcefulness of homeless people. My favorite example was the guy who managed to live for years in a crawl space in the basement of the UW art building, discovered after 12 years only because of the extra electrical usage he was responsible for at night.
Another finding of note: In a post-count survey of homeless people, 94 percent said they would move into safe/affordable housing if it were available. The other 6 percent were the people like me who always like to throw surveys off. I hate surveys.
In a strange departure from methodology in recent years, the post-count survey only shows one self-reported response per person surveyed to the question “what is your reason for being homeless?” In the previous three years, the answers add up to well over 100 percent. This year the sum is 100 percent. Presumably, the first answer given was the only answer accepted and tabulated.
For instance, if the answer to the question was “I couldn’t afford a rent increase and so I was evicted,” the surveyors had to pick only one of “couldn’t afford a rent increase” or “eviction” and understandably picked the first one uttered. This could explain why the reason “eviction” dropped from 15 percent of responses to 5 percent in one year.
When I was homeless in 1988, a man pretending to deeply care gave away a possible source for this sort of behavior (only accepting the first answer to a probing question). I don’t remember what the question was. It could have been “why are you homeless?” or “why do you always get your turkey sandwiches with cheddar and not provolone?” But, anyway, my answer was along the lines of “reason A, but also reason B.” And then I said, “yeah, reason B mostly,” and he said, “the true answer is reason A, the one you gave first.” I asked him how he came up with that rule and he told me he learned it in college taking courses in social work. Ah, no wonder, I thought. Undereducation was to blame.
A page or so down the point-in-time report, they list all the various self-reported disabilities, including depression, schizophrenia, drug or alcohol addiction, PTSD, physical disabilities or chronic health conditions, traumatic brain injury, intellectual disability or memory impairment and HIV or aids, and all the answers add up to a realistic and wonderfully overlapping 257 percent. Consistency is a hobgoblin!
One more surprise: In each of the three previous years, 97 percent of individuals in families with children were sheltered. This year, the number dropped to 71 percent. I suspect this is due to another methodology change. Most likely a change in the application of Boolean algebra, going from “is one individual in the family sheltered?” to “are all of them?” That might do it.
All in all, the report isn’t too scary. Only a 5 percent increase in homelessness over all. A few more hobgoblins of little minds than usual. Hobgoblins are adorable.
Now is the time to start bracing yourself for next year.
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time math professor who has experienced homelessness several times. He supplied the art for the first cover of Real Change in November of 1994 and has been involved with the organization ever since. This is his weekly column, Adventures in Irony, a dry verbal romp of the absurd. He can be reached at drwes (at) realchangenews (dot) org
Read more in the July 8-14, 2020 issue.