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Eight years into a 10-year Plan to End Homelessness, volunteers making an annual survey Thursday night counted more unsheltered people than last year in King County.

In all, 2,736 people were found sleeping outside or in cars and tent cities, a 5 percent increase over last year. In 2006, before the economic recession, volunteers counted fewer than 2,000 people outside.

The increase underscores what advocates for the homeless have known for years: The 10-year plan is not keeping up. The countywide plan’s original vision was to build so much permanent, affordable housing that more emergency shelters would not be needed, but that hasn’t worked.

So this week, as volunteers prepared to do the annual overnight count, the Committee to End Homelessness adopted a new strategy: putting government money toward emergency shelter in addition to permanent housing.

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It is a big change and a public statement of support for shelters by a group that has sometimes dismissed them as a “Band-aid” on a bigger problem.

The Committee to End Homelessness guides the distribution of millions in government money each year and oversees the 10-year plan. A change in its strategy will have ripple effects across King County as cities and organizations decide how to invest in helping people without homes.

“It’s an acknowledgment that shelter does work, and it should not be rejected as an undesirable part of our response to homelessness. It should be enhanced,” said Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. “This situation that we’re in now is the result of ever-diminishing resources … so we end up with these crazy situations in which the best we can offer people sometimes is not even a mat on the floor.”

Since the 10-year plan began, the committee has helped build about 5,000 units of affordable housing. But shelter space is scarce, and often it’s offered only overnight or when the weather is cold. Advocates hope the new strategy will expand shelter hours and the number of beds, and provide more shelter outside of Seattle.

The strategy change does not go as far as some activists would like. It doesn’t change the committee’s neutral position on tent cities — it “neither promotes nor disapproves of” them.

A group called Occupy CEH has been pushing the committee to help organized tent cities and car campers. That group, which includes SHARE/WHEEL, Nickelsville and Real Change, is disappointed the committee didn’t go further.

“People are finding their own solutions to homelessness,” said Real Change director Tim Harris. “This is an opportunity and not a problem. You need to work with the people in tent cities and really help them, rather than merely tolerating them.”

Still, Harris said, the strategy shift is a step in the right direction. He rented a gong this week, which he and others banged 2,736 times at City Hall on Friday morning, once for each homeless person counted.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or

On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter

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