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Homeless Count

February 26, 2015

For one night each year volunteers roam the streets of King County counting those who don't have anywhere else to go -- this is the "One Night Count." And as the numbers increase each year, they ask, what can be done to end homelessness?

Coordinator 1: So just kind of a reminder, it’s like we’re walking through people’s living rooms and bedrooms tonight.  There’s no walls, but that’s what we’re doing so it’s really important to stay quiet.  Even minor noise travels.  It’s okay if you find empty camps.  We know that a lot of people are a little afraid of being discovered or counted at night, and they might disappear for the evening, and that’s all right, too.

Feliks Banel: This is the “One Night Count”—an annual census, of sorts, to quantify the number of homeless people in King County.

A sign thanking the volunteers of the One Night Count.

Coordinator 2:  “The unfortunate reality is that that homelessness is growing rather than going the other way for a multitude of reasons, and it’s incumbent for us to have a pretty good idea how big the problem is so that we can try to figure out some solutions to these problems.”

Alison Eisinger: It started out as a very small effort involving a couple of people who were themselves homeless doing some documentation over the course of a few nights, some local police officers and clergy and other concerned.  The One Night Count that  the Coalition organizes is taking a look, just a snapshot 2-5 in the morning, just for three hours about who is struggling to survive in designated places around King County.

Feliks Banel: Venetia Vango is a volunteer team leader for the 2015 One Night Count.

Venetia Vango: While there’ll be people out that are not homeless, by and large people who are up and trying to stay active at this time of night likely don’t have a permanent place to stay. So we’ll be counting folks who are out walking around who look like they might be just trying to kill time until daylight comes.

Volunteers fan out across King County for the annual One Night Count of the homeless. Photo by Alicia Lynch, courtesy of Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness

Feliks Banel: First stop for Venetia’s team is a parking garage.

Venetia Vango: We’ll go down to the next floor.  This is 7, you’ll be on 6.  You guys can go do 5.  And then we’ll do 4. On this car, the windows are definitely fogged, so it’s likely there’s someone inside.

A car with fogged up windows, signaling that there may be someone sleeping inside.

Feliks Banel: Like a lot of other things around here these days—cars on the roads, the cost of living—the number of homeless people is on the rise, too.

Alison Eisinger: This year, we saw a 21% increase in the number of people . . . our volunteers counted 3,772 men women and children .

Results of the One Night Count, 2011-2014

YearDate CountedOn the StreetsIn SheltersIn Transitional HousingTotal Homeless (Percent Increase)
20141/243,1232,9063,2659,294 (3%)
20131/252,7362,8743,4529,062 (3%)
20121/272,5946122,5158,830 (<1%)

* In 2011 people in transitional housing and shelters were counted together.

Source: One Night Count Annual Reports

Feliks Banel: From a hard count of nearly 4,000 people, the Coalition estimates that the actual number is much higher.

Alison Eisinger: We now have close to 10,000 people on any given night who are experiencing homelessness in King County.

Feliks Banel: At the heart of the problem is the complexity of homelessness.  The simple reasons are often complicated by multiple factors.  And personal problems can be magnified by larger social and economic issues.

Homeless in Pioneer Square

Alison Eisinger:  There are all sorts of things that contribute to people becoming homeless, but what we are just starting now to pay more attention to both locally and on a national level are both the public policy and economic factors, how wages have been suppressed for so many years and how housing costs are shooting up. And we really have to acknowledge that homelessness is a crisis essentially of the tremendous gap between what people earn and what they can afford to pay for housing and other core costs and the multiple failures of many of our systems including the child welfare system the criminal justice system and even to some extent even the educational system and homelessness is the manifestation, the visible and sometimes the invisible, manifestation of deep poverty and crisis in our country.

Feliks Banel: Local governments and not-for-profit groups have not shied away from tackling the problem.  They’ve even spent the past decade on an ambitiously named effort called “The 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.  So why, then, is homelessness increasing? Alison Eisinger points to $12 billion in cuts to health and human services in Washington state over the past several years.

Alison Eisinger: And when you repeatedly cut programs that support people in deep poverty, families with kids, elders, immigrants, people who are temporarily disabled--when we cut those programs as we have done, deeply and repeatedly, there are consequences, and we are seeing those consequences play out in our neighborhoods and in our communities.

Feliks Banel: With so many unfunded needs right now, whether for education, transportation or other infrastructure, it’s unclear where money to end homelessness will come from.

Mayor Ed Murray: This city, this council, previous councils and my predecessors have been incredibly generous in trying to address the issue of homelessness when you compare us to cities around the nation.

Feliks Banel:  Given the resources that are available, what is the solution to ending homelessness? One way is to get more people off the streets and into low-cost temporary shelter.  Seattle Mayor Ed Murray introduced legislation in January to increase the number of legal tent cities.  Seattle will also release a detailed report in March that examines the effectiveness of all its current efforts to address homelessness.

Mayor Ed Murray:  We need to be sure that we are actually aligning these programs with the best practices identified across the nation. We need to be sure that we are getting the outcomes that we need to end homelessness from the agencies that we are funding. 

Feliks Banel: So while the city and other groups try to find a lasting solution to ending homelessness, the search continues out on the streets, too.

Featured Image Credit: Marius Tunduc, courtesy of Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness


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