The region’s annual count of homeless people shows fewer people are living outside in King County than last year, a drop for the first time since 2012.
Roughly 11,200 people were counted as homeless, living in shelters or outdoors in King County on one night in January 2019, a drop of 8% from 2018. There was an even more precipitous drop among people living outside, down 17 % from last year.
The snapshot is an imperfect measure of homelessness, and officials cautioned that it doesn’t necessarily mean overall homelessness is decreasing because other data shows a growing number of people asking for aid.
“More than 11,000 people without a permanent place to be at night is far too many, and unacceptable, so we don’t treat this as a celebration, but truly as a time to take action,” said Kira Zylstra, acting director of All Home, King County’s coordinating agency for response to homelessness.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan pointed to the city’s efforts to help those struggling financially avoid becoming homeless, the city’s focus on “enhanced” shelters, which offer more services and housing assistance, and better coordination with the county as drivers of the improvement.
“All those pieces together, I think, are helping,” Durkan said.
The count showed fewer families (7% decrease), veterans (10% decrease), and youth and young adults (28% decrease) experiencing homelessness compared to last year.
The count, conducted Jan. 25, involves volunteers counting encampments and shelters across the county, as well as a more in-depth survey with a representative sample of the homeless population with questions about why people became homeless. The survey results aren’t yet finished.
Homelessness remains perhaps the most divisive topic in Seattle, particularly ahead of this year’s City Council elections, where seven of nine seats are on the ballot. In a Seattle Times poll released in January, many of those surveyed doubted their elected officials’ ability to solve homelessness.
Seattle leaders will spend more than $90 million this year on addressing homelessness, nearly double what the city spent in 2015 when city and county leaders declared a state of emergency around homelessness. Zylstra acknowledged the point-in-time count results may seem out of step with residents’ perceptions of homelessness in King County, with tents proliferating across the city.
Neighborhoods like the Sodo industrial district feel overrun with homelessness, said Erin Goodman, executive director of the Sodo Business Improvement Area. Business and neighborhood groups have lobbied the city to focus on the small number of homeless “prolific offenders” who cycle in and out of jail without a long-term solution.
“It doesn’t feel like a reduction because the impact is still very high,” Goodman said. “We have a very small population that is perpetrating the majority of the crimes. They don’t represent the vast population of homelessness, yet their impact is so extreme.”
While the count of people living outside on the night of the count went down, King County also tracks the number of people who access homeless services in a given year — and that number has been steadily climbing faster than people are being housed.
Last year, King County households experienced roughly 22,500 episodes of homelessness, according to newly released data. The county has been refining this so-called inflow and outflow data to better understand who becomes homeless every year and why.
The point-in-time count data also, for the first time, counted people living in five of Seattle’s city-funded, tiny-house villages as being sheltered; these five villages, unlike previous years, were determined to meet federal standards for shelter.
The data released Wednesday was incomplete; a more detailed point-in-time report will be released later this month that will lay out where unsheltered people are staying (tents or vehicles, for example), where people were living before they became homeless and what caused their homelessness.
This year, like last year, people of color were disproportionately represented in the totals, making up more than half of the people estimated to be homeless on the night of the count, while people of color make up about a third of King County’s general population. Meanwhile, the number and percent of whites experiencing homelessness went down.
The number of Native Americans experiencing homelessness on the night of the count nearly tripled, from 398 people to 1,161 people. They made up 10% of the overall one-night count total, a sharp increase from last year, when they made up 3% of the total. Native Americans make up less than 1% of the general population.
Several Native-led organizations raised serious concerns about the 2018 count, questioning the methodology and arguing it did not reflect the scale of the problem in the Native community. This year, Native-led organizations worked closely with All Home on the count, and post-count surveys were done at Chief Seattle Club, the largest Native-led homeless-service organization in the city.
Homelessness among African Americans went up almost 8%. They represented 32% of the total number of homeless people in King County, compared to 6.2% in the general population, according to census estimates.