The 2020 Census intended to count every person living in the United States, and that included people experiencing homelessness or living in transitory locations.

The data that includes the count of the homeless population was recently released, enabling us to look at the numbers at the neighborhood level.

Before we take a look at the numbers for King County, I should explain one important caveat about this data.

People experiencing homelessness are counted among the “group quarter” population — that’s Census Bureau terminology for anyone who doesn’t live in a housing unit (such as a house, an apartment or condo, a mobile home, or an SRO). There are many types of group quarters. Some are called institutional, such as prisons and nursing homes. Others are considered non-institutional, such as college dorms and military barracks.

The homeless population is categorized as living in “other non-institutional facilities.” This category includes both those staying overnight in missions, shelters and other facilities for homeless people, as well as those who are unsheltered.

The caveat is that this category is a combined category. In addition to the homeless population, it includes the counts of a few other populations. These are people living in adult group homes or residential treatment centers, on maritime/merchant vessels, in worker dormitories/job corps centers, and in living quarters for victims of natural disasters.


I imagine all these are rather small populations in King County, and the great majority of the people counted in the “other non-institutional facilities” category are people experiencing homelessness.

So what does the data show?

There were 15,419 people countywide counted as living in other non-institutional facilities.

By way of comparison, the 2020 Point-in-Time Count for King County found 11,751 people experiencing homelessness on one night in January — one important difference, though, is that this count was done before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, while the Census Bureau count was undertaken during the pandemic, from Sept. 22-24, 2020.

The census data shows the highest concentration of people living in other non-institutional facilities is in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. There were 699 such people in this census tract, which pencils out to more than 20% of the total population of 3,374.

There are two other areas where more than 10% of population was people living in a non-institutional facilities. They are in downtown Seattle (in the census tract that includes a long stretch of Third Avenue) and the Sodo neighborhood.

There are seven Seattle census tracts between 5% and 10% of the population was composed of people living in a non-institutional facilities. These tracts are located in central Ballard, Lower Queen Anne, Interbay, Belltown, and on First Hill near the Harborview Medical Center.


But in most of King County’s nearly 500 census tracts, this population made up less than 1% of the total.

And there were 129 tracts without a single person living in a non-institutional facilities.

You may be curious about how the Census Bureau went about counting the population experiencing homelessness, as it is a challenging population to count.

One strategy involved working with local groups across the county to identify outdoor and other locations where people are known to sleep, whether that was in a car or RV, in tent encampments, parks, beaches, wooded area, highway underpasses, and so on. People were also counted staying overnight at 24-hour businesses, such as laundromats and transit stations.

Census takers went to these locations and counted people in person.

Census takers also went to service locations such as shelters, missions and hotels and motels used to house homeless people, soup kitchens and regularly scheduled mobile food vans.

(Note: Some people experiencing homelessness move into the household of a friend or relative. Since these individuals were living in a housing unit, they would not be counted among homeless people living in non-institutional facilities).