For the second year in a row, King County will not be counting the number of people who are homeless. This is a mistake, and the decision should be reconsidered. Data is critical to inform policy responses to homelessness and to track efficacy in our homelessness policy.

The annual point-in-time count documents sheltered and unsheltered homelessness, providing a snapshot of homelessness in our region. In January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) granted permission to King County, among many other locales, to forgo the count of the homeless population given the challenges associated with the COVID-19 health pandemic. That decision was debatable at that time, but given that decision, it makes conducting a count this year even more important.

In fact, according to HUD, given this year’s partial data sets, it is critical that a full count be conducted this year.

King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s decision to opt out of the 2022 count also seems out of step with other cities across the state. While the federal government only requires the count every two years, King County has traditionally conducted a count every year in January since the 1980s. It is yet unclear if this decision will imperil King County’s competitiveness for future federal funding.

The homelessness authority’s justification for forgoing the count is that the current methodology undercounts, which is “harmful in skewing the narrative and limiting the budget and resources.” Choosing to abandon data collection because it might undercount is a poor excuse and probably has always been true of point-in-time counts. Its utility for comparison and to inform policy interventions still drives the counting process. Given the importance of data collection to inform policies and practices, we simply should not go another year without data on the scope of homelessness. Multiple data points shed light on what is working and not working.

In fact, given the dearth of data on tent encampments in the city of Seattle and the perceived visual increase in people living in tents, I embarked on counting tents with an undergraduate student research team from Seattle Pacific University. Our findings of high frequency areas where tents were recorded in 2019 showed a dramatic increase during the pandemic in 2020. It is vital that we have another data point to compare to the 2020 point-in-time data as well as my tent census data.

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Despite limits to the current method, rather than abandon the count, the homelessness authority should make reasonable adjustments to address methodological concerns and go forward, as many other cities are planning to do, with the count.

Instead, it will “conduct qualitative engagement with people living unsheltered.” As a researcher who has collected both quantitative and qualitative data on homelessness, I find the abandonment of the quantitative assessment in favor of qualitative data misguided. It is not that qualitative data is unimportant. In fact, I argue in my work that quite the opposite is true; it informs our understanding of homelessness, interventions, and responses. However, given we do not have a count from 2021, the probative value of a 2022 count outweighs the qualitative accounts that could be gathered. Given time and resource constraints both quantitative and qualitative data collection are probably not possible.

While there are many benefits to qualitative data collection, we already have a wealth of published qualitative data from which to draw. At a time of crisis — both in terms of homelessness and the pandemic — it seems unwise to abandon the annual data collection. Furthermore, as one of the first major public decisions from the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, this is discouraging and raises additional public concerns.

The crisis around homelessness in Seattle is increasingly becoming a governance crisis. Transparency and accountability are central tenets of good governance, and they are not being fully met with the recent decision to abandon the collection of data to inform policy responses. The homelessness authority should perform this important data collection duty.