The 2016 tally of people without shelter represents a 19 percent increase over last year and comes in a week when homelessness took center stage in the news.
More than 4,500 people were sleeping outside in Seattle and across King County during the region’s annual One Night Count, with a sharp increase seen in South King County, organizers said Friday.
Volunteers in small teams walked the streets from 2 to 5 a.m. Friday, clipboards in hand, scanning the pavement, peering into tents and cars.
The 2016 estimate of people without shelter showed a 19 percent increase over last year, and the 2015 tally of 3,772 was a significant increase over the count in 2014.
Greg Jensen was the captain of a team of volunteers that met in Pioneer Square, then skirted Safeco Field.
Many of the people Jensen’s team spotted were sleeping rough below ramps near Safeco. One woman screamed at the group from under tarps. Other people, bodies bundled in blankets, didn’t move an inch as the volunteers strode by.
The team counted 23 people — 13 under roadways, eight in vehicles and two on the street — in about two hours of walking.
“The number of campers outside are high every year, but it was remarkable how many people we saw sleeping under roadways right next to downtown, and our section was just a small part of the region,” Jensen, a longtime volunteer, said afterward.
Last year, in addition to 3,772 people sleeping outside, the count found 3,282 in homeless shelters and 2,993 in transitional housing, for a total of 10,047. The number of people in shelters and transitional housing for this year’s count is still being tallied.
“We’ve seen a huge spike, particularly the number of unsheltered people,” said Nicole Macri, a volunteer with Jensen’s team who is director of housing at Downtown Emergency Service Center. “I believe the increases in rent that everyone’s been talking about recently have been an important factor in the numbers going up.”
“This gets pretty traumatic when you see people sleeping with a cardboard box as their bed,” said Donna Payton, who counted with a different team. “This gets tough.”
The count is led by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. More than 1,000 volunteers took part Friday in Auburn, Bellevue, Bothell, Burien, Des Moines, Federal Way, Issaquah, Kent, Kenmore, Kirkland, Redmond, Renton, Seattle, Shoreline, Skyway, Vashon Island, White Center, Woodinville and parts of unincorporated King County. Vashon Island and Southwest King County were added last year.
The results this year were up most dramatically in some cities south of Seattle, such as Federal Way, Kent and Renton. The Seattle tally increased less (5 percent), which organizers said may have been related to some counting sites being excluded.
Following recommendations from police in the wake of a shooting Tuesday night in the Sodo homeless encampment known as The Jungle, which left two people dead and three wounded, counters stayed away from greenbelts under and next to Interstate 5.
The Seattle count may also have been affected by ongoing cleanups of unauthorized encampments by city and state crews, which have ramped up in recent months.
The One Night Count is by no means exact. Volunteers, for instance, figure tents and vehicles with an unknown number of people inside as holding two people each, and they guess about whether non-volunteers walking the darkened streets are homeless.
But Macri said the exercise is valuable nonetheless. Politicians and planners use the information to budget to combat homelessness. King County held the country’s first One Night Count decades ago; the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development now requires communities across the nation to do the same.
“Because we use the same methodology year to year, we can feel confident that the increases and decreases over time are telling us something,” Macri said.
The count came near the end of a Seattle news week in which homelessness took grim center stage. Mayor Ed Murray, who with King County Executive Dow Constantine proclaimed states of emergency over homelessness in November, gave a series of interviews and delivered a live televised speech Tuesday about the crisis.
People experiencing homelessness and others, including Murray, rang a gong 4,505 times outside City Hall on Friday to call further attention to this year’s count.