As political debates flare around homelessness in King County, the region’s annual homelessness count shows signs that some specific interventions may be working: Over the last year alone, for example, the number of homeless youth and young adults in the count dropped by 28%.
This year’s point-in-time count, released in full on Friday, reflects the third consecutive year in which King County has used consistent methodology, allowing for analysis of trends over time. Since 2017, the number of unaccompanied youths under 18 has dropped by 63%. The number of homeless veterans counted has decreased by 38% over three years.
The 2019 numbers reflect the first overall drop in homelessness King County has seen since 2012, and a 17% drop in the number of people sleeping outside.
The annual snapshot count of homelessness is an imperfect measure, relying on volunteers who canvassed King County on a single night in January to count tents and vehicles, followed up by a professionally run survey by the social-sciences research firm Applied Survey Research.
It is best thought of as a minimum, as numbers of homeless people living outside and in shelters fluctuate. For example, while the 2018 one-night tally was 12,112, the county’s homeless management information system counted 22,500 households accessing services that year.
Even so, officials pointed to an influx of money in King County targeting youth and young adults over the last year that could explain the drop.
Mark Putnam, executive director of Accelerator YMCA, said he wasn’t necessarily surprised by it.
“It’s not coincidental that you’re seeing declines among veterans and youth and young adults, because those have been the populations that have received the most funding,” Putnam said.
The one-night count has other bits of encouraging news more than three years into the state of emergency on homelessness declared by Seattle and King County.
The overall drop in the year’s count was driven by a roughly 1,000-person decline in the number of people counted as unsheltered – those living outside, in abandoned buildings, in vehicles, or in tents or unsanctioned encampments.
There was an especially steep decrease in the number of people living in vehicles, dropping from nearly 3,400 people in 2018 to roughly 2,100 in this year’s count, reversing a sharp increase between 2017 and 2018. And, last year, more people were found to be living in vehicles than tents, on the street or in abandoned properties – but that flip-flopped this year.
The point-in-time data may not square with the experience of Seattleites who feel that they’re increasingly seeing people experiencing homelessness in their neighborhoods: Chronic homelessness dropped 38%, according to the count, and the number of chronically homeless people living in shelters went up.
While most of the categories of people living without shelter decreased over 2018, the 2019 count showed a 309-person uptick in people living in tents or unsanctioned encampments.
Why is youth homelessness declining?
In early 2017, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded Seattle and King County $5.4 million to target youth homelessness. At the same time, the state’s Office of Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection spent $4.15 million in King County in 2018 alone.
“It’s been a significant bump in funding and also bringing in new focus areas,” Kim Justice, executive director of the Office of Homeless Youth, said. “That, I believe, would have an impact on the decrease in numbers.”
The federal funding provides housing assistance, including negotiating with landlords, as well as flexible, onetime financial aid.
Officials expressed particular enthusiasm about another program, the Youth Engagement Team, that involves a multidisciplinary group that aims to catch minors in systems like schools or the justice system if they fall into homelessness or unstable housing.
“We’re really excited about that,” said LaMont Green, lead youth and young adult homelessness planner at All Home King County. “They’ve really partnered with our schools and systems that contribute to our inflow. And they work closely with our homeless and housing providers.”
But not everyone agrees that the Count Us In numbers accurately portray homelessness on the ground. At Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets (PSKS), an enhanced, 25-bed young-adult shelter on Capitol Hill, a handful of young men were digging into chicken-and-noodle casserole during the shelter’s drop-in hours on a recent Thursday. Interim executive director Sylvia Fuerstenberg said the report’s numbers weren’t reflected in what she saw every day.
“I think it’s such a severe undercount,” Fuerstenberg said. “We are full to overflowing most nights. Most of the shelters are.”
Correy Barber, 18, was using one of the computers to prepare job applications and chat with his girlfriend. He’s been at the shelter a month but said he would stay as long as it takes to secure housing. “I just want to take care of my family,” he said.
Fuerstenberg said that her organization has been increasingly successful at getting young people into housing, but lamented the lack of transitional housing available to participants in PSKS’s programs. She said over the last year, she’s seen more young people who come in with mental-health and drug issues.
“I think there’s been a big shift,” Fuerstenberg said. “I think we housed the kids who are more stable.”
Racial disparities continue
Despite the point-in-time count’s overall decreases in youth homelessness, there has been less success in reversing racial disparities. The number of white homeless youth and young adults fell 37% since 2017, but the number of African American youth and young adults fell only 5%, and American Indian/Alaska Natives only 1%.
Those same disparities show up in the topline report. African Americans make up 6.2% of the population of King County, but made up more than 32% of all homeless people in the one-night count. The number of African Americans counted in 2019 increased nearly 8% over the year before.
In response to criticism that last year’s count undercounted homeless Native Americans, King County this year worked with Native-led organizations to conduct surveys of people experiencing homelessness. While last year’s count only showed American Indian or Alaska Natives making up 3% of the homeless population, this year’s count indicated 10%. American Indians and Alaska Natives make up just 0.5% of the county population.
Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, said she was happy to see the new numbers more accurately reflect the experiences of people in the Native community. “They had really work hard to break through a system of institutionalized racism that’s part of that count,” Echohawk said.
Still, Echohawk said, seeing the numbers on paper was “a punch in the gut.”
“To know in this city there’s so much wealth and prosperity and good-hearted people, to know that the Native community is most likely to be homeless is truly a moral outrage,” Echohawk said.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount spent by the state Office of Homeless Youth and Proection in King County in 2018; it is $4.15 million.
Seattle Times reporter Vianna Davila contributed to this report.