More than five full months after King County’s point-in-time count, the Regional Homeless Authority has finally released their snapshot of homelessness for Jan. 24, 2020. Seldom has so much effort delivered so little so late.
Two weeks later, the report has been dissected and parsed by numerous longtime observers. Kevin Schofield of the Seattle City Council Insight blog offers a deep dive on count methodology and concludes “there is no reliable year-over-year trend data on the number of unsheltered individuals in King County — and thus no reliable trend data on the total number of homeless individuals.”
Until recently, the annual count has been described as “consistent in its inconsistency.” In other words, while each year varied slightly in methodology, the trend lines were still more or less meaningful.
Last year, that changed, and for the first time the report’s overall credibility was widely questioned. Homelessness reportedly decreased while demands for shelter and services were up. The 2020 count similarly fails the smell test.
Worse, the profound economic disruption brought on by COVID-19 renders whatever data this year’s count offers immediately obsolete.
Erica Barnett reported that, according to Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data, requests for homeless services in March were up by 29 percent over January. When financial assistance and eviction moratoriums run out, she observed, we can expect an even more dramatic increase in demands for services.
The trend data that the report does offer is troubling. Our overall system capacity is again revealed as grossly inadequate. With the shelter system strained to the breaking point, 59 percent of chronically homeless people counted this year were unsheltered. And this was surely an undercount.
In addition to a reduction in count volunteers by nearly half, Barnett reports that homeless sweeps immediately preceded the count, removing 28 tents and structures from one site and resulting in the disappearance of 50 people from another. While this annual interference with count integrity is hardly unprecedented, our current mayor has taken things up a notch.
There’s more bad news. According to the HMIS database, the most reliable data set within the count, chronic homelessness has risen to include about a third of all homeless people. While we can only speculate on why this is, we can assume the lack of permanent supportive housing plays a large role.
As Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness Director Alison Eisinger points out in The Seattle Times, “The homeless system is underwater because it was never designed to respond to extreme housing unaffordability.”
While the newly formed Regional Homeless Authority promises new resources in the form of a county-wide response, current numbers reveal how far we have to go.
Although northeast King County saw a 69 percent increase in unsheltered homelessness, that region offers just 1 percent of the county’s emergency shelter. Despite longtime demands for a county-wide approach, Seattle still provides 72 percent of the region’s shelter, an increase from 2017.
Racial inequities are again highlighted by this year’s report. Real Change’s Ashley Archibald notes the “wildly disproportionate” numbers of BIPOC homeless people. While Native Americans are .6 percent of the population, this year they represent an eye-popping 15 percent of homeless people counted. Black people represent just 6.6 percent of people in King County, but 25 percent of those who are homeless.
The report’s demographic data is derived from a survey of 832 people, or about 7 percent of the 11,751 homeless people counted. Yet this hardly matters. Whether the racial disparity is four-fold or more than five times that, the life-threatening realities of inequity are plainly unacceptable.
The 2020 point-in-time count, despite its many flaws, lends increased urgency to the fight for fair taxation, a demilitarization of public spending, deep investment in BIPOC communities, and a radical increase in permanent supportive housing.
The upshot is this: Incremental change that feebly nibbles at the edge of racial disparity and radical inequality is plainly incapable of making homelessness “rare, brief and one-time.” This bureaucratic phrase offers false promise and merely lulls us to sleep. It’s time for all of us to wake up.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
Read more of the July 15-21, 2020 issue.