Since the data-driven Marc Dones was hired to lead the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, one of their main priorities has been to get an accurate count of the homeless population.
“You have to understand the scope and scale of the problem in order to design solutions to meet the need,” Dones said.
Now, Dones and the Authority have two different counts: 13,368 and 40,800. Both are larger than the previous estimate of the homeless population conducted in 2020.
They didn’t want to have two counts. But the federal government mandates one of them, and the Authority says the other is more accurate.
The different methods used to arrive at the two counts also situate Seattle in a national conversation about whether more accurate surveys lead to finer-tuned responses to people’s needs.
Whether or not the Authority will have to continue to do two counts, officials say they are creating models the rest of the country could look to.
A pivot that led to innovation
The Authority had originally announced in November it would skip the 2022 Point-In-Time Count, a biannual homeless census mandated by the federal government, saying it undercounts and provides an inaccurate picture of homelessness. King County has conducted a Point-In-Time Count every year for decades, an effort that used to rely partially on volunteers walking around the county on a single day in January, literally trying to count each homeless person they saw.
Dones has moved to using a count compiled by King County that tracks every homeless person who uses services like shelter, medical and behavioral health throughout an entire year, which the Authority says captures a more holistic count of homelessness in the county. This is the one that produced the 40,800 figure.
“Knowing that over 40,000 people are experiencing homelessness in King County means that we have to reset expectations and examine resources,” Dones said.
But the federal government disagrees with de-emphasizing the Point-In-Time Count.
The Point-In-Time Count is the “only data-collection effort that systematically counts people in unsheltered locations,” said Vanessa Krueger, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD requires a Point-In-Time Count at least every two years to receive certain federal funds for homelessness services.
The Authority agrees that relying only on data that tracks people who use services could miss unsheltered homeless people who don’t use any.
Spokesperson Anne Martens said the Authority’s announcement that it would skip the 2022 Point-In-Time Count was based on miscommunication. She said the Authority thought it wasn’t required since 2021’s count was waived by the federal government due to the pandemic, and the count is required only every two years.
Once the Authority learned that a count in 2022 was required, it had to pivot quickly. The typical way to count unsheltered homeless people, by walking around the entire county, is labor- and time-intensive. Zack Almquist, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, said he suggested to the Authority a new way to conduct this year’s Point-In-Time Count called “respondent-driven sampling.”
The idea, Almquist said, is to find the ratio of sheltered to unsheltered homeless people in King County. Then, from the total number of sheltered homeless people in the county, which is already tracked, they could extrapolate the unsheltered population.
Authority staff and partners, many who have experience living outside, went to outdoor locations they knew people lived in and provided bus tickets for people to go to hubs to be interviewed. Interviewers asked them whether they were sheltered or unsheltered and the ratio of homeless people they know who are sheltered versus unsheltered. They also gave survey participants $25 gift cards and asked them to recruit other people they know who are homeless.
The survey reached more than 500 people spread throughout nine areas in the county.
“Because this method relies on using people’s personal networks, it tends to do a very good job finding people that would otherwise be hard to reach using more typical survey methods,” Almquist said.
Almquist said this method can be more accurate than the way Point-In-Time Counts have been conducted in the past, which can miss people because they’re hard to see or are in rural areas that are difficult to access for staff or volunteers.
They counted 13,368 homeless people, a 14% increase from 2020. The estimate of people in tents, vehicles or other places unfit for human habitation grew even more, 38%.
Almquist and the Authority say the increase between the 2020 and 2022 Point-In-Time Counts likely reflects both an increase in the homeless population and the change in methodology.
The Authority received a special exception in 2022 to do the Point-In-Time Count in this way, but CEO Marc Dones said the new methodology could spark conversation about changing how Point-In-Time Counts are done at the federal level.
Limitations and criticisms
Some homelessness data experts say the Authority’s new method of counting is not necessarily better or worse than the old way. Marisa Zapata, Director of Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative, said that while traditional Point-In-Time Counts may miss people because surveyors can’t see them, there may be people who don’t want to come in and be interviewed.
“I am concerned about how expectations of going to a place would depress turnout for people who are immigrants, undocumented community members, and people with warrants or significant criminal justice interactions,” Zapata said.
In the Authority’s March governing committee meeting, some committee members expressed similar concerns.
“I’m really curious about bringing people to a hub, what kind of disruption that creates rather than if you’re going out to find people, asking these questions where they live,” said Redmond Mayor Angela Birney.
Authority leaders and partners say that using people with lived experience of homelessness who conduct interviews in a trauma-informed way, and using people’s own networks, helped mitigate those concerns.
“I think that trying alternative approaches like respondent-driven sampling is worth trying. No method is precise, and all have flaws,” said Dennis Culhane, a homelessness expert at the University of Pennsylvania.
While the Authority was conducting the required 2022 Point-In-Time Count, it was working simultaneously on another project, a series of in-depth conversations asking people in the region questions such as how they became homeless, what that experience has been like and what services they need. The Authority says this will provide additional insight into the unsheltered homeless population, some of whom don’t currently access any services.
“People have not been asked to really tell us this: ‘What is your story? What is missing?’ And they’re really excited about that opportunity,” said Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Dones in a March governing committee meeting.
The Authority is analyzing over 500 oral histories, which it plans to present later this summer.
Another way to count homelessness
Other communities around the country have also been moving to de-emphasize the Point-In-Time Count, or at least supplement it.
One approach, led by a national homelessness advocacy group called Community Solutions, uses “by-name data,” which enumerates each homeless person by name combined with their homeless history, health records and housing needs, updated in real time or every month. About 110 cities and counties around the U.S. have partnered with the organization to move toward using by-name data.
Community Solutions says by-name data can more accurately show changes in homeless populations, and also provide deeper understanding of the inflows and outflows of homelessness.
Mecklenburg County, which contains Charlotte, North Carolina, adopted the by-name data approach three years ago. Courtney LaCaria, Mecklenburg County’s housing and homelessness research coordinator, says homelessness staff can also use it to triage services for specific individuals.
“They’re seeing, ‘OK, who’s next up for housing? How do we make sure we’ve got the right slot?’” LaCaria said. “When you look at it by name, you are able to be more accurate with how you’re allocating services.”
LaCaria says Mecklenburg County still does the Point-In-Time Count as well “because you have the dollars attached to it,” and says it’s also a way for community members who help conduct the count to connect with homeless people.
HUD says by-name lists can be useful, but it has no plans to get rid of the Point-In-Time count because “by-name lists rarely cover a community’s entire unsheltered population.”
King County and Seattle have used by-name lists at high-profile encampments like Woodland Park to identify everyone staying there and their needs, in order to find them housing before clearing the encampment. The Authority said it’s building a technology platform that would allow it to manage by-name data on a larger scale, and that it could be another useful way to count its homeless population.