For 10 years, Federal Way resident Doug Johnson has braved the cold, dark January weather to count the number of homeless in the community.
“It’s always heart-wrenching to see firsthand how many are suffering,” Johnson said. “But it’s an important job to do because people need to know that poverty is increasing every year and it’s moving to our suburbs. The homeless are our brothers, sisters, friends and neighbors.”
The King County One Night Count took place Jan. 23 for the 35th year. Participants found there were around 3,772 people in King County that had no shelter, a 21 percent increase from last year.
Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said that during the 2014 count, volunteers found 3,123 people surviving outside without shelter.
“This year’s count is heartbreaking evidence that we cannot cover our community’s most basic needs,” she said. “Clearly, the crisis of people homeless and without shelter is growing, and clearly we must respond by using every resource we have. Everyone needs a safe place to rest.”
In Federal Way, there were 105 people counted this year, which is a decrease from last year’s 113 people counted.
“It’s more important to pay attention to the total count for King County than for one city,” Johnson said. “The reason for that is most homeless people are transient, they can spend one night in Kent and the next night in Federal Way.
Volunteers helping with the count found people sleeping in doorways, beneath overpasses, in their vehicles, in alleys, or walking around in the communities of Auburn, Bellevue, Bothell, Burien, Des Moines, Federal Way, Kent, Kenmore, Kirkland, Redmond, Renton, Seattle, Shoreline, Skyway, Vashon Island, White Center and Woodinville. Eisinger said the reasons people are without shelter vary. Lack of affordable housing, poverty, unemployment, untreated mental illness or addiction and domestic violence all contribute to homelessness.
“Part of what we are concerned about is that we feel strongly that this is a real increase, this isn’t a fluke,” she said. “We need our legislatures at local and state levels to understand we insist affordable housing is a priority. While parts of the economy is rebounding, lots of people are still left behind.”
The data informs elected officials and planners at all levels of government about the extent of homelessness in their community. The count does not include the thousands of people staying in shelters and transitional housing; they are counted separately.
“It’s important for people in any community to have a sense of what homelessness really means and what it really looks like and that homelessness has many different faces; people are homeless for a wide variety of reasons,” said Jeff Watson, Federal Way resident and volunteer. “It’s a complicated subject and it’s important for people to understand that it is a complicated, multifaceted issue that demands input, resources and help from the wide variety of community providers and folks that can help.”
Watson said the experience was hard, but he was grateful for it.
“You are walking around in the wee hours of the morning and it’s dark and most people are not up and about,” he said. “But it is an opportunity to see a part of the community that is often hidden from view and to see the circumstances under which people are trying to get by.”
Federal Way volunteer Linda Murphy agreed.
“It is a rewarding experience because you feel you are making a difference by spreading the word of what’s going on with our homeless,” she said. “It also makes you appreciate what you have.”
Volunteers expressed their desire to get the community together to solve the issue.
“We need to recognize homelessness as a crisis and not a given,” said Mark Putnam, director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County. “All of us, our entire community, must rally together if we are to end homelessness, and today’s count gives us new data on the enormity of our challenge.”
Homeless advocates gathered to strike a gong once for each homeless person counted in King County from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Jan. 28 in Olympia.
“We hope communities will commit to taking action in response to this number,” Eisinger said. “Call your city, county, and state representatives: urge them to vote to fund shelter, services and affordable housing.”