While King County reported a decline in homelessness this year, which some service providers have viewed with skepticism, homelessness appears to have increased elsewhere in Washington state.
Counties are required to perform annual point-in-time counts, which provide a snapshot of homelessness on a single night, to receive state and federal funds. The counts are an imperfect measure, and tactics vary among counties and years, but the results factor into how legislators make funding and policy decisions around homelessness.
Results released this week show that while there seems to be a slight (3%) decrease, with 21,621 people counted as homeless statewide — 683 fewer than last year — the problem appears to be on the rise in about half of the counties in the state. The overall statewide decrease largely reflects findings from King County, which accounts for about half of the state’s homeless population and this year reported an 8% drop in homelessness.
Tedd Kelleher, head of the state Commerce Department’s housing-assistance unit, warned against drawing sweeping conclusions. How the count is conducted can change year to year, along with other factors such as weather and the number of volunteers participating in the count. The different methodologies counties use also can make comparing results difficult.
In King County, some have been skeptical of this year’s count, which found an 8% drop in homelessness overall — particularly among unsheltered people — as well as a dramatic 38% decrease in chronic homelessness. Some officials say the count doesn’t align with other data showing a growing number of people in the county asking for aid. Last year’s count found about an 8% increase in the county and a 3.5% rise statewide.
With King County results factored out, this year’s statewide data shows a slight uptick in homelessness in the rest of the state, with an increase of 230 people overall. It also shows 70 more people living unsheltered (outside or in abandoned buildings, vehicles, tents or unsanctioned encampments) outside of the county, compared with a 1,022 statewide decrease when King County is factored in.
Pierce, Thurston and Whatcom counties, which have sizable homeless populations, also have reported declines — 9%, 4% and 14% respectively. But in actual numbers, those counties saw less extreme decreases than King County reported.
In other parts of the state, homelessness appeared to rise dramatically from last year — up about 21% in Clark and 30% in Snohomish. Spokane County saw about a 5% increase. Smaller counties, such as Cowlitz, Jefferson and Okanogan, found particularly high increases in the number of people estimated to be outside or chronically homeless, but they had much smaller total numbers of homeless people. Okanogan, for example, reported only 36 this year.
This year, Snohomish County recorded the highest number of people experiencing homelessness since 2012, although officials believe it’s partially because of a change in methodology for the count, including a new strategy to identify homeless families. The count is up about 35% since its lowest point in 2015, rising from 829 to 1,116 people. The number of homeless people who are sheltered is mostly unchanged, with almost all of the increase found in the number of people living without shelter.
County officials there say this year’s count mirrors an increase in people seeking housing services.
The state is now further analyzing this year’s results and will also conduct a supplementary count based on the number of people accessing services later this year. One factor in an increasing number of people experiencing homelessness, according to the state, is that low-income households haven’t been able to keep pace with rent hikes.
Staff reporters Sydney Brownstone and Vianna Davila contributed to this report.