Why we’re counting our homeless neighbors tomorrow

From 2 to 6 a.m. Friday morning, about 1,000 volunteers will fan out across King County to try and count how many people are unsheltered or not living in permanent housing.

This has happened one night every year for the last 37 years. It used to be called the One Night Count (or you may have heard it referred to as “the homeless count.”)

But this year, it’s called Count Us In. Why? There’s a new group organizing and leading the count and it plans to do some things differently. To learn more, we spoke with Mark Putnam, the director of All Home, formerly known as The Committee to End Homelessness, which is a coalition of groups working to address homelessness.

First, you might be thinking…

Why do we count people who are homeless?
It’s required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in exchange for funding to help fight homelessness. (Though it should be noted that Seattle and King County started doing its count years before it was mandated by the federal government).

Organizers of the count say the data helps them, and the rest of us, understand the reality of the crisis and whether we’re making improvements. The data can also help guide policy and funding decisions during the year.

Finally, from the organizers’ perspectives, 1,000 volunteers fanning out across King County can get attention and media coverage of the issue.

Who does the counting?
For the last 37 years, The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) has organized the count. But this year, Applied Survey Research, a California-based firm that has done similar work in San Francisco and Los Angeles, will be organizing and leading the count. The SKCCH executive director said the Coalition decided not to participate in this year’s count so that it could focus more on its advocacy work.

And who exactly is being counted?
There are three components to the count, Mark says. First, counting people living unsheltered on the streets and second, counting people living in shelters or transitional homes.

They will also survey people experiencing homelessness to learn more about their situation. We’ll come back to that in a minute.

So what’s different about how they’re counting people this year?
Here are three of the biggest changes:

First: In the past, for efficiency reasons, volunteers only went to areas where they knew homeless people tended to live. But this year they’re covering all 398 census tracts in King County, since they know they’re probably missing some people in other sometimes overlooked areas. They still won’t be able to get to every single nook and cranny of the county, but it will be more geographically comprehensive.

Second: This year, 150 of the 1,000 volunteers will be people who are currently or formerly homeless and who have a familiarity with the areas being counted. The idea is that they’re more likely to know where to find people so they can get the most accurate count possible. These guides will be paid $15 an hour for their work.

Finally, over the next couple of weeks organizers will be surveying people who are homeless. They’ve also done this in the past, but this year they’ll pay people who are formerly homeless to survey other people who are currently homeless (similar to how they’re using “guides” to count people). The survey questions include things like, “What are your needs?” and “Are you accessing any services right now?”

So will the numbers we get this year be more accurate?
That’s the hope. But these counts are still estimates and the actual number of people living without permanent homes in Seattle and King County is probably higher. To learn more about the history of Seattle trying to count its homeless population and why it’s so difficult, check out this Seattle Weekly story by Joe Bernstein.

When will we know the final count?
Mark says they’ll have a report ready sometime in the spring. “I think it will be the most comprehensive report and assessment of people living unsheltered that we’ve ever had,” he said.

People will be tempted to say the numbers have gone up or down compared to last year and previous years. But because the methodology is different, organizers say we’ll have to wait until next year to really understand the trends.

Last year’s count of our homeless neighbors, then called the One Night Count, showed a 19 percent jump in the number of unsheltered locals in Seattle and King County from 2015 to 2016. Learn more about this year’s count here.

By Anika Anand
Anika Anand is a cofounder of The Evergrey. She previously worked at The Seattle Times Education Lab and Chalkbeat.