The annual count is a one-night snapshot of homelessness in King County, which has been recorded as rising each of the past six years. Volunteers and guides were paying attention to vehicles that might be doubling as someone's living space.
The towel hanging in the driver’s-side window of the box van, parked along a quiet street in the Magnolia neighborhood, confirmed Graham Pruss’ suspicions. This was someone’s home.
“That is definitely being lived in,” said Pruss, as he slowly cruised by in his small SUV. In his back seat, 16-year-old Dylan Stepherson marked down the sighting on a tally sheet.
Pruss and his small team of volunteers, which included Dylan and his mother, Christine Stepherson, were all on the lookout for any telltale signs that a vehicle was doubling as a habitation.
They were among the nearly 1,000 volunteers and paid guides who fanned out across King County in the early morning hours of Friday, as part of the county’s annual homeless point-in-time count. The event, called Count Us In, is a one-night snapshot of King County’s homeless population and one of the best ways officials can determine how many people are experiencing homelessness on any given night as well as who they are and how they live, whether in a tent, RV or shelter.
The count can also serve as an important, if imperfect, bellwether of how much progress local governments and agencies have made on reducing homelessness. Last year’s count revealed 12,112 people were homeless, the sixth year in a row that the annual numbers have increased. More than half the homeless people identified in the count were living outside versus in a shelter. The majority of those outside were living in vehicles.
Pruss, founder of the donation app WeCount, is an expert in vehicle residency and helped design the training for Count Us In volunteers.
Vehicles doubling as someone’s home are often camouflaged, hard to distinguish from any other car parked on the street. They are not always falling-apart junkers. At one point, Pruss’ team spotted a newer-looking vehicle parked alone on a street, showing several signs of habitation, like unfrozen condensation on the windows and covered front and rear windshields. A rideshare logo was mounted on the front of the vehicle.
Several times, Pruss and his team members simply weren’t sure if someone was inside a vehicle and had to make a judgment call.
In all, Pruss’ team counted 41 vehicles in the Magnolia and Interbay neighborhoods in their assigned census tract. They didn’t see a single tent.
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That’s one sign of how homelessness looks different neighborhood to neighborhood. And it’s why volunteers have, for the past three years, scoured all 398 census tracts in King County, as part of an effort to better capture the entire scope of homelessness across the region.
The final tally — which won’t be announced until late spring — is determined based on results of the one-night census as well as on surveys, done in the days and weeks following the count, of a representative sample of the homeless population. All Home, King County’s homeless-services coordinating agency, has contracted the past three years with Bay Area-based Applied Survey Research to oversee both processes.
The survey process came under some scrutiny last year, after several Native American-led homeless service providers raised concerns about the count results, which showed a decrease in the percentage of Native people experiencing homelessness here. They challenged those numbers, particularly because surveys were done at only one Native-focused service agency.
In response, surveys will also be done this year at the Chief Seattle Club, the city’s largest Native-led homeless service provider, said Colleen Chalmers, the club program manager.
The one-night census process is largely unchanged from last year. But this is the first year Pruss has ever seen teams split their time between driving and walking.
At one point, his team stopped and walked so they could get a better look at some brambly overgrowth along one darkened street. Later, he and Dylan scrambled up an embankment of packed dirt under a bridge, to look for any camps that might not be easily seen from the road.
“I’m trying to think about when I was living on the streets, where I would stay,” Pruss said later, as he walked along the edges of a park baseball field, shining a flashlight into the bushes. Count organizers try to pair volunteers with people who have experienced homelessness, like Pruss, who spent time on the streets as a teenager.
Stepherson, 51, has participated in the count twice before and wanted her son to share the experience.
“I just think he needs to be aware of what’s happening in the community,” she said.
“I think it’s fun,” said Dylan, a high-school sophomore. “I’m going to be tired in the morning.” He still had to go to school, because he had a Spanish test.
Though the team spotted more than three dozen vehicles, Pruss said vehicle dwellers have largely disappeared from Interbay, as more “no parking” signs have been erected in that area. “People want to be in a place they can stay at for a while but those spaces are rapidly diminishing,” he said.
Still, the team found a few clusters of RVs and other vehicles, including a row parked near Fisherman’s Terminal. None of the inhabitants were outside, but a rumbling generator hooked up to one of the RVs was a sign of the lives inside. Someone else had erected a small, stand-alone flagpole outside their RV. An American flag flew from the top.