After dipping for a year by some estimates, homelessness in King County rose again last year and could be poised to rise further, according to a new report from county government and homeless shelters. 

A new yearly count released Wednesday indicated that in January 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic, homelessness had risen 5% over a count last year. The 2020 count tallied a total of 11,751 people sleeping in shelters, outside and in vehicles.

January’s count was higher than 2017 and 2019 counts, but not quite as high as King County’s all-time high counted in January 2018 — 12,112.

This estimate is based on multiple sources that, when combined, try to give a picture of how many people are homeless on a given night in King County. It uses data from volunteers who counted homeless people on the street in the early morning hours of Jan. 24; a tally from all shelters in King County of how many beds were full that night; and surveys of homeless people.

This data has been heavily criticized for years, however, for showing an incomplete picture of homelessness in Seattle and across the nation. Sara Rankin, director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University, said that it fluctuates greatly year to year but is good for spotting trends.

“It’s sort of like a Pollock painting in a way, where you can look at all of these paintings and see stylistic consistency …  but a lot of it is sort of a haphazard process.”

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The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

There are positive trends: The report showed continuing drops in youth homelessness and veteran homelessness. 

But there are also fluctuations: The number of people counted sleeping in vehicles rose significantly, by 600, but people counted sleeping on the street dropped by 700 — although these two counts are among the most subjective. In a survey of 832 homeless individuals conducted after the one-night count, the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time rose sharply, from 30% of the total to 40%.

The count found homelessness rose starkly among families — from 2,451 parents and children in the January 2019 count to 3,743 in January of this year.

It found a significant drop in Black homelessness, from 32% to 25% of the total counted population — which is still a much higher percentage than the county’s Black population of less than 7% overall. There was a rise in homelessness among the Native population, from 10% to 15%, although Native people make up less than 1% of King County’s population overall. 

Though those numbers were “a shock” to Colleen Echohawk, executive director of Chief Seattle Club in Seattle, she also said they’re closer to reality than numbers have been in the past.

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“I think part of what we’re seeing is that we’ve really invigorated the Native community to get involved in the point-in-time count. … We’ve been vastly undercounted for years and years,” Echohawk said. “I will say I was very disheartened when I saw the numbers because we have worked so hard … to change the trajectory of our relatives sleeping outside.”

County officials said the apparent drop in Black homelessness wasn’t backed up in other data sources, like the Homeless Management Information System.

That homelessness disproportionately affects people of color is “unacceptable,” said Leo Flor, director of the county Department of Community and Human Services. “So that is certainly a starting place for us, and I don’t think we‘re going to fixate on the fluctuation year to year … that is unacceptably disproportionate.”

The count also doesn’t capture at all what has happened in homelessness since COVID-19 hit, devastating the economy and causing unemployment to skyrocket. 

One widely quoted estimate from a Columbia University researcher said homelessness could increase 45% by the end of the year. That might not pan out, according to Dr. Brendan O’Flaherty, the economics professor who made that estimate (it was based on a projected 16% unemployment in July, but unemployment is currently closer to 13%). But he said it still makes any counts from before COVID-19 already outdated.

“The story that you’re writing about is a story about the old world,” said O’Flaherty. “A 5% change, especially when you have a large unsheltered population, in my mind doesn’t mean much because there’s a lot of error built into counting the unsheltered population.”

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But O’Flaherty also said it’s unclear if homelessness has risen yet or has been held at bay temporarily by eviction moratoriums in Seattle and around the country, as well as stimulus checks to Americans.

Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, who has been tracking changes in shelter capacity since COVID-19 hit, said the count is more than an “old story,” however — it’s a picture of the inadequacies of the homelessness system.

Eisinger said she and her staff are currently investigating to figure out the scope of shelter and service decreases post-coronavirus, but she suspects there’s been a reduction in shelter since the count.

“Guess what the point-in-time count is: It’s a count of our system’s capacity,” Eisinger said. “The homeless system is underwater because it was never designed to be a system to respond to extreme housing unaffordability.”