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Annual count finds fewer homeless in Federal Way

During the 2011 homeless count Friday morning, Roy Andresen prepares to search underneath a highway overpass off Interstate 5. - Neal McNamara, The Mirror
During the 2011 homeless count Friday morning, Roy Andresen prepares to search underneath a highway overpass off Interstate 5.
— image credit: Neal McNamara, The Mirror

They only counted one. The person, gender unknown, was asleep in an old compact car at 2:42 a.m. Friday in a deserted parking lot on the north end of Federal Way.

Roy Andresen rolled his truck slowly past the car, then stopped to get out and take a closer look. The interior sides of the car’s windows were heavy with condensation — a sign that someone was in there, breathing. Andresen approached the car gently and peered inside.

“That looks like a lot of moisture,” said Berlie Fincham, who was observing Andresen from the passenger seat. After Andresen reported that there was, in fact, someone sleeping in the car, Fincham made a check on a sheet of paper. Then, the pair drove off to look for more.

Andresen and Fincham were just two out of hundreds of volunteers participating in the 2011 homeless count. Across King County, volunteers scoured highway underpasses, wooded areas and parking lots to take a census of the region’s homeless population.

In three hours of counting on Friday, Andresen, who co-founded the Dream Center homeless outreach mission, and Fincham, who works as a property manager for the Kent location of the Multi-Service Center, counted only that one person sleeping in a car.

It’s hard to say exactly why, but overall, this year’s count found fewer homeless than in 2010 and 2009. A total of 2,442 homeless were counted this year, compared to 2,759 in 2010 and 2,827 in 2009. In Federal Way, 124 were counted this year, compared to 181 in 2010.

“The honest answer is, we don’t know,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which runs the yearly count, on why the numbers went down. “A single point in time count isn't enough information by itself. When we see that there are a little over 300 fewer people counted this year than the previous year, it feels significant and we hope it is. At the same time, we need to have information from other sources to evaluate whether or not this is an accurate indicator of a trend.”

Several factors can affect the numbers, Eisinger said. Whether winter weather shelters are open can change numbers. In fact, 149 in East King County were sheltered last Friday. Some spots in South King County, where the homeless sometimes congregate, were flooded. On the positive side, Eisinger said 400 units of transitional housing were opened in 2010. Also, the federal stimulus program injected a lot of money into homelessness prevention over the past several years. That money is set to go away soon.

“We like to be circumspect whether or not the numbers go up or down because people always try to give extraordinary meaning to it,” she said.

Besides raising awareness for the homelessness problem, the count is also a factor in how much federal money King County receives for homeless services. The count helps bring in around $24 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development each year.

Less to count

Andresen had predicted before embarking on the count Friday that, at least on his route, there would be fewer homeless people to count. He and Fincham were assigned to search parking lots at apartment complexes and all of the highway underpasses in Federal Way.

Andresen, a former pastor, devotes most of his time to working with the homeless. He refers to local homeless people as “friends,” runs a weekly drop-in and feed, and delivers aid such as showers and medical services. He knows some homeless who recently died, entered prison or are in the hospital.

Some have found positive ways to get off of the street.

“There's a number of people who have got places to live now,” he said. “They've either got an apartment or moved back with family. Some have moved out of the area.

“One guy had a disability and he used to be a truck driver, but he couldn’t drive a truck anymore. What could he do? Finally, he got Social Security disability. He moved back to his home, back to where he grew up.”

Andresen said he counted around a “half a dozen” during the 2010 count. This was Fincham’s first year volunteering to count.

“I like volunteering. It keeps me grounded,” he said.

Steamed up windows

The pair began the night searching various parking lots of apartment complexes off of Pacific Highway South.

“What you'd be looking for is something that's really significant, where (the car window) is really steamed up and you think there's somebody in there,” Andresen said, instructing Fincham.

They found no one resting in the apartment complex parking lots. There’s really no stable place for a homeless person living in a car to park in Federal Way, Andresen said. Public places are off limits, and sleeping on private property is a crime. He said that a car does not mean a homeless person is necessarily more stable or even in a better financial spot; it’s just a form of shelter.

“They choose to use (a car) and move around,” Andresen said. “Unless they stay in one spot, they may not get harassed as much.”

Andresen said he has heard of stranger places where the homeless live. One man camped on an island in a swampy area, erasing his tracks to elude being found by police. He heard of one man who lived in a child’s treehouse.

There are several wooded areas in Federal Way where the homeless camp. One area near Interstate 5, which is owned by a private company, actually gave a group of homeless camped out there notice that the company intended to develop the property — a more humane way to evict them than, say, calling the police.

“They actually made notices to develop this land and gave them to the guys in the camp,” said Andresen. “We walked back there, there was probably about a half a dozen camps back there.”

A majority of the night was spent inspecting highway overpasses. Flashlights in hand, Fincham and Andresen traipsed through wooded areas and descended steep embankments to search these crevasses. Underneath one, near Interstate 5, Fincham shined a flashlight on a few pieces of deserted bedding.

Near 4:30 a.m., with their assigned count area complete, Andresen took Fincham on a quick tour of some other places where the homeless in Federal Way live: A couple of motels off of Pacific Highway, a desolate industrial looking area and a parcel of land that contains what Andresen called the “felony house.” Driving down Pacific Highway, the pair passed an itinerant man standing in the shadow of a bus stop.

"I didn’t really know that there was a big homeless issue in Federal Way,” Fincham said of his first homeless count. “I figured maybe more toward the downtown areas, maybe in Tacoma. I had no idea."

Andresen was ambivalent about whether it’s a success that only one person was counted.

“It’s a good thing. I think it’s a mix,” he said. “It’s kind of a complex problem. In this country, we're not in abject poverty like you would find in a Third World country. Especially in Federal Way, you should not go hungry, you should not have those types of problems.”

He said there are plenty of groups in Federal Way — individuals, faith-based groups and the government — who are stepping up to help.

“This is our city, these are people we love. We don't want to see them by the wayside, so (people have decided) let's do something. That's what I see with people.”

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