On a soaking wet Thursday morning, volunteers had nearly come to the end of their Everett route for Snohomish County’s annual homeless point-in-time-count when they spotted a woman surrounded by luggage, sitting beneath pink and gray umbrellas on the sidewalk.
Holly Shelton, a volunteer and county social-services worker, crouched down to introduce herself, explaining the count was a way to understand the scope of the region’s homeless crisis. Shelton asked her if she’d be willing to take a survey, a brief series of questions about homelessness and other things such as mental health, substance use and HIV/AIDS status.
The woman underneath the umbrellas looked up from her crossword, smiled and shook hands with Shelton. She was homeless, she explained, but would rather not participate.
And so, Shelton couldn’t count her.
In all, though Shelton encountered seven people who identified as homeless that day, she only counted three – a reflection of the varied ways local governments conduct counts they rely on to show funders how many people are experiencing homelessness on any given night.
Homeless point-in-time counts like these were conducted across the United States this week, because they are the main way cities and counties are able to solicit federal dollars to address homelessness. As rough as these counts can be, they are required for federal investment.
But across the state, methods for counting people vary widely. Snohomish County uses an in-person and service-based count in which only people surveyed contribute to the overall total.
In contrast, Seattle and King County use an observation-based count in which people seen in shelters, tents, RVs and other structures are counted, but the surveys are done separately and extrapolated upon in order to determine overall population numbers.
Snohomish County’s point-in-time count got Project Homeless’ attention last year as one of the Washington counties with the largest overall increases in homelessness from the previous year, increasing by more than 250 people – a 30% jump. Most of the increase was driven by unsheltered homelessness.
A change in methodology also contributed to the increase. In 2019, in addition to the county’s usual process of conducting more interviews at food banks, meals and inside shelters over several days, homelessness-services staffers used their caseload databases to call people and interview them for the point-in-time count. This process yielded an additional 120 surveys.
Despite its lack of precision, the point-in-time count helps inform communities about how homelessness originates and what it looks like.
“What we’ve found over the years is most people homeless in Snohomish County are from Snohomish County,” said Snohomish County Human Services grant and program specialist Robin Hood. “We are finding people don’t move a lot. They don’t have the means to move very much, and they’re kind of comfortable where they are.”
The count is happening as Snohomish County is undergoing a significant political shift. Residents recently voted out incumbent Sheriff Ty Trenary, who instituted a series of reforms aimed at cutting down jail deaths and reducing the jail population of people who are homeless, mentally ill or addicted to opioids. He was ousted by Sheriff Adam Fortney, a former sergeant in the department, who ran a tough-on-crime campaign that criticized Trenary’s approach.
At 2:30 a.m. Friday, recently elected King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay was in Tukwila, getting ready to count homeless people in southwest King County, though that’s not his district.
“This is where they needed us [volunteers],” he said, starting up the red Camry that he borrowed from his sister for the count. Zahilay takes transit most places. “A King County councilmember should think about all of King County, not just their district.”
Volunteers like Zahilay are critical to the one-night count, held in King County in the early morning hours, when many homeless people are in shelters. Zahilay’s job was to count the ones that aren’t.
That wasn’t easy. He spotted a few people obviously sleeping outside, under boxes, storefront awnings or the gazebo in White Center Heights Park, but Zahilay and the volunteers with him were also tasked with trying to count how many people were sleeping in vehicles.
That’s much harder. This suburban segment of King County, from Vashon Island to Auburn, held over a fifth of King County’s unsheltered homeless population by last year’s count — the most behind Seattle — but that number has fluctuated by hundreds each year since 2017.
Most of the dozens of cars Zahilay and his fellow volunteers counted and entered into a smartphone app — a new method King County is trying out this year — were informed guesses. They looked for condensation on the windows, tarps or blankets hanging and expired registration.
Zahilay was uncomfortable getting so close to the cars, afraid that peering in the windows might startle someone inside. He and his family spent some time in a shelter when he was in third grade, and he remembers what it was like when visitors would come through.
“It feels like a violation,” Zahilay said. “Like if someone just walked into your living room.”
In King County, volunteers are told not to speak to the homeless people they see. Those kinds of conversations will happen in the two weeks after the count, when surveys will be distributed to homeless people throughout the area, collecting a clearer picture of why people here are homeless.
Zahilay and his group did end up interacting with one person that night: A man sleeping under a gazebo in White Center Heights Park. They gave him a bottle of water.
Zahilay kept thinking of him the rest of the night.
“I understand it’s important to gather data,” Zahilay said as he neared the end of the route. “I don’t think a statistic on homelessness can show me what it’s like to be alone in the dark, in a park, asking for water.”