Warmer than your typical winter night, it was still chilly enough to need a winter coat last Friday morning.
The Multi-Service Center’s parking lot was surprisingly full at 1 a.m., with people packing into the lobby to sign in for the annual King County homeless street count. This year, I joined the volunteers to see how the homeless population is counted in Federal Way.
Shortly after signing in, I was ushered into a break room for a necessary cup of coffee, then into a small conference room to mingle with the other volunteers where we were paired up and given our route assignments.
Before we headed out onto the quiet Friday morning streets, we downloaded an app on our phones to record any homeless people we saw. The app is called Qualtrics, where we could take a survey to input details about any homeless people or encampments that we saw to give a more accurate number to the overall homeless population in King County.
I was partnered with Deputy Mayor Susan Honda, local volunteer Betty Taylor and a young woman named Lori who offered to be our driver. She read maps very well, so we only got lost once, thanks to my poor sense of direction. We had four routes in or around Federal Way, including the small city of Algona.
Because this was my first count, I’m not sure what I was expecting to see, but it wasn’t what I actually saw once we were on the road.
Meaning to say, we saw no one. Not one person. Not one single tent. We marked one person as homeless after we saw a trailer attached to a pickup truck next to a gas station, but we had no proof anyone was inside.
Instead, we saw shopping carts. We drove mostly on main roads and took some back roads and residential streets, but parks were closed, so the closest we could get to them was driving right up to the gated entrance. We opted out of getting out of the car and walking farther inside.
For the King County count, volunteers were told their safety matters above all else. We were told not to wander around dark parks or forested areas, or try to talk to people. It’s a smart, necessary rule. There is no need to put yourself in danger.
However, the way King County is running its homeless count leaves room for error.
In Federal Way, there have been several hot spots for encampments, including those deep in wooded areas and behind brush. It is impossible to see these encampments when you are driving past them at night.
Because we didn’t walk around the darker, more forested areas where encampments are likely to be, this will likely result in an undercount for King County.
The whole night, driving through all of our routes and not seeing anyone, it almost felt dishonest. I kept feeling like there was this whole population we were missing.
The annual homeless count is important. It’s a way to keep track of our homeless population and know what programs we can use to help decrease the numbers. But with the King County homeless count being done in this fashion, I don’t know how accurate our population numbers are.
We were told not to approach or speak to anyone. Instead, our job was to observe. It’s not an effective count when most of the time, what we observed was nothing.
And with the limitations that volunteers faced — including where we could go throughout the morning — how precise is the information that we gathered? And if that information is so essential to informing King County and Federal Way’s response to homelessness, how off-kilter does that make their responses to the actual scale of the homeless issue?
The 2019 homeless count found 11,199 people were experiencing homelessness in King County. All Home’s data from the 2019 count shows that over the past three years, 17,992 people have been moved through the system into permanent housing.
All Home’s homeless count report from 2018 shows a total of 12,112 people experiencing homelessness, which is higher than the 2017 number of 11,643.
The organization’s website reports “a successful and accurate PIT (Point-In-Time) Count is an essential component to informing our system response to the need in our community and to ultimately making homelessness rare, brief and one-time.”
How accurate can the count be if it’s only done at night with limited vision into the areas where homeless people are more likely to gather and sleep?
Pierce County also participates in the count, but its count is much different from King County. In Pierce County, the count is done during daylight hours. People experiencing homelessness are approached and talked to about how they came to be in their circumstances.
The first thing you see on the Pierce County website for the Point-In-Time Count is a video showing volunteers speaking with homeless people, talking about how they became homeless and where they usually spend the night.
“The count is a one-day event where outreach workers and volunteers survey people experiencing homelessness,” according to the website.
Both King and Pierce counties follow the rules of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Washington State Department of Commerce for the annual homeless count, which is “one source of data among many that help us understand the magnitude and characteristics of people who are homeless in our community,” the website reads. But each county chooses a different methodology for conducting the count.
Both counties are aware of the count’s shortcomings when it comes to getting an accurate homeless count.
“Like all surveys, the PIT Count has limitations. Results from the Count are influenced by the weather, by availability of overflow shelter beds, by the number of volunteers, and by the level of engagement of the people we are interviewing. Comparisons from year to year should be done with those limitations in mind,” Pierce County’s website reads in part.
Because Pierce County does its count in the daylight hours, there is a different list of requirements, according to HUD: “HUD requires that counts conducted during periods other than the night of the count include an interview to identify whether a person was unsheltered on the night of the count …” This process also helps volunteers eliminate duplicate data.
While both methods have their positive points, the Pierce County method is more effective in identifying those experiencing homelessness in the area and figuring out how they came to be there. This information is essential when figuring out the programming needed to help solve the homeless issues of the region.
With the King County street count, the whys of how people became homeless are unknown, which can lead to guesstimations and unspecific programming.
While the annual street count is just one part of the overall King County homeless count, having an accurate street count is a huge step forward in getting a clearer picture of the real homeless issue in this region.
And Pierce County has the right idea to get a more accurate and informed street count.
The homeless count is a necessary event that our region needs, and the selfless volunteers are doing great things while working toward a solution.
But an accurate and effective count is needed for effective solutions.