The King County Regional Homelessness Authority made waves last month when it announced it would not be conducting a census of homeless people this year in the way the federal government has long required.

Instead, Thursday, the county announced a new method of counting homeless people — and a staggering difference in how many people it counted. According to the authority, 40,800 people were homeless at some point in 2020 in King County.

At the last federally required point-in-time count in January 2020, a snapshot of homelessness over the course of one night, there were 11,700. The vast discrepancy is mostly because the new number takes the entire year into account rather than just one night but also because old counts have consistently missed many homeless people with serious mental illness and drug use disorders.

King County was one of the first in the nation to perform the count, long before it was required by the federal government, but leaders have always acknowledged the process — which relied heavily on volunteers — had problems. Now, officials argue they have found a more accurate method, but it might not satisfy federal requirements.

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

When Marc Dones took over the King County Regional Homelessness Authority earlier this year, figuring out a better number for how many people are actually homeless in the county was one of their first priorities. 

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On Thursday, the county’s department of community and human services released a report saying more than 7,300 people a year slip through the homeless services system and are only served by public behavioral health services for mental illness or drug use. Cross-referencing that with homelessness data in county databases, leaders found that the number of people who were homeless at one point in 2020 or during the entire year was 40,800.

Local governments primarily gather and communicate homelessness numbers via a “one-night count,” a volunteer-driven effort to survey homeless people just on one night in January each year. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the count every two years — on odd-numbered years. King County, though, has done it every year for decades.

Dones hopes the new number announced Thursday can help the community understand the gravity of the problem King County is facing and the investment required to fix it.

The new data, while complicated, reflects county leaders’ effort to better track people with serious mental illness and drug use disorders who aren’t being served by the state’s underfunded behavioral health system and inefficient homelessness system. These people instead are often left to wander Seattle’s streets in distress, sometimes causing high-profile incidents in business districts or neighborhoods.

Other people are not captured because they’re in privately funded religious shelters such as Union Gospel Mission, according to Leo Flor, the director of the county Department of Community and Human Services, which completed the analysis.

“The premise is you can’t solve a problem you don’t understand,” Flor said.

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Dones, Flor and other officials warned this new 40,800 number, too, was not perfect.

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A ferry passes the Seattle skyline during sunset on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021.  218504

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“As we continue to get better at measuring homelessness, this number might change,” said Christina McHugh, a data evaluation manager for the county. “In fact, it might initially go up, and that might be a good thing.”

But the homelessness system across the country has long relied on the point-in-time count, even as officials warned it as a likely undercount year after year, and it’s going to be hard to change things overnight.

The authority put the kibosh on the 2022 point-in-time count earlier this year, pointing out many of its flaws. This caused ripples in the homeless advocacy and research community and generated some criticism.

At first, HUD told the authority it needed to do the count anyway because King County had forgone the 2021 count as a COVID-19 precaution, the news site PubliCola reported in November.

Now, the authority and the federal government are in discussion to find a way to satisfy the federal government’s requirements but do the count over a month, according to spokespeople for both the authority and HUD.

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Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness, a membership group of scores of homelessness nonprofits who used to manage the annual count, said that she and other leaders had acknowledged the flaws in the count for some time but found it an important way to engage the community.

“I am in no way surprised by the numbers shared today,” Eisinger said. “The big question is — is this community at every level of government, elected leaders, business leaders, and housed and unhoused residents going to step up to do what we have to do?”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.