Homelessness rises as counties collect data

Snohomish and King counties’ annual homeless counts took place last week.

King County’s and Snohomish County’s homeless populations have been on the rise and may continue to increase despite efforts to remedy this.

Volunteers counted 11,643 people living without a home during King County’s 2017 Point-In-Time count with 5,485 of them being unsheltered.

Snohomish County reported more than 1,000 people in its 2017 Point-In-Time Homeless Count with 515 being unsheltered and 551 who were in shelters or transitional housing. Overall, it was a 12.5 percent increase from 2013’s count of 947.

This year’s Point-In-Time counts for King and Snohomish counties took place last week, and more than 1,000 volunteers spread out to count the thousands of people experiencing homelessness. While the count results won’t be published until April or May, there’s a good chance the numbers could be higher than last year.

“With our skyrocketing housing costs, some slip into homelessness simply because of illness or being unemployed,” said Dave Somers, a Snohomish County executive in a press release. “Veterans, families, and our elderly deserve as much help as we can muster, and the Point-In-Time Count will help us determine how best to serve our neighbors’ needs.”

ON THE GROUND

As King County and the Eastside continue to get more expensive, the homelessness crisis is likely to intensify as more people are priced out of housing or lose jobs due to cuts or automation.

One organization trying to address the problem is Camp Unity Eastside near Woodinville, which provides a secure place for those without a house to call home.

On a recent evening, Crystal Gonzalez, Ivan Dempsey and Daniel Cottrell were sitting in a tent at the camp filled with chairs, racks of clothes and a computer.

Framed sketches and paintings hung from the wall. One was a caricature of Camp Unity residents that Cottrell made.

All three said they were grateful for a place like Camp Unity, which provides them with a safe place to sleep, food and a community.

They also said there are many misconceptions about people who find themselves without a home.

“Most people are a paycheck away from being in a place like this,” Dempsey said.

Gonzalez and her boyfriend are an example of this series of events.

She moved up from Phoenix and in with her boyfriend, who now also lives at Camp Unity, in Puget Sound. He had a place he had been renting for around eight years and works a decent paying union job.

However, their landlord did an inspection of the property and decided they could get more money selling it than renting.

The couple was given a 30-day notice to evict, Gonzalez said.

“We ended up not finding any place we could rent,” she said.

A friend gave them an old trailer they could use, but parks in the area wouldn’t take it due to its age.

Ironically, she said they were denied residence at some trailer parks because the park owners viewed old trailers as being associated with homelessness.

Other apartments they looked at were expensive and wouldn’t let couples occupy them.

They bounced between friends couches and hotels, which drained their savings, before they ended up at Camp Unity last May.

“There’s nothing affordable,” Gonzalez said.

Cottrell, a lifelong Washington state resident, had a similar story.

He has an associates degree in electronics and used to work for national cell phone companies in the area before the industry ran into trouble.

His rent was also increased to a point where he couldn’t afford to stay.

Others work temp jobs for around $15 an hour or more.

“Most of the campers here work or have some sort of labor that they do,” Gonzalez said.

Even still, housing is still out of reach for many folks.

According to RentCafe, the average price of a studio apartment in Redmond is $1,500, up 5 percent from last year.

The picture is equally as bleak across the Eastside, with studios in Kirkland and Bellevue clocking in at $1,305 and $1,619, respectively.

Government housing assistance is scarce too, with multi-year wait times to get housing vouchers.

Increased regulation of the housing market, which would prevent landlords from charging unrealistically high rents, was needed to help people from becoming homeless, the three agreed.

Higher wages could also help.

“It’s a humanitarian crisis, that’s what it is,” Dempsey said.

While the camp provides shelter for the people that live there, Gonzalez, Dempsey and Cottrell all want to get back on their feet.

“Give people a chance, not only to hope, but to dream, because everybody wants to go home again,” Cottrell said.

THE DATA

The annual Point-In-Time counts can help the homeless population in small ways, as volunteers will often offer warm socks and other comforts to the people they survey. But the collected data can help in a more indirect way by giving the government the means address homelessness scientifically.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as state and county entities, use the data to determine funding for government efforts to end homelessness.

“It’s just a snapshot of how many people can be counted at one time in a particular area,” said Robin Hood, a grants and program specialist for Snohomish County’s Department of Human Services. “It’s not the (only data) we use, but it’s an important piece.”

The Point-In-Time numbers aren’t an accurate count of the homeless population, but the trends recorded across multiple years can provide helpful information in the fight against homelessness, according to Hood.

“We definitely make it clear that it doesn’t pretend to capture everyone who may be homeless that day or that night,” Hood said. “But it’s still a good indicator that if the effort is consistent, we can see a difference from year to year.”

While an exact count of the homeless population is nearly impossible to do, Snohomish County has taken several steps to ensure the most accurate numbers possible.

Previously, the county used the “tic” method, in which it would asked volunteers to count homeless people they’d see on the streets or at a given location. This method grew unreliable as volunteers would have to estimate the number of people within an encampment.

The county discontinued this method but maintained its survey method that requires volunteers to survey homeless individuals. This method also requires the first two letters of an individual’s last name as well as a middle initial and birthday, which also helps avoid duplicate counts — another problem under the “tic” method.

Additionally, the county allows volunteers to enter encampments accompanied by a police officer to get an accurate count.

According to Hood, the most important information the county gathers is the overall trends since the method has inherent limitations and can run into whether complications.

The King County count consists of a simple observational account, which is similar to the “tic” method and used more than 800 volunteers and subsequent surveying to collect more detailed information on homelessness causes and people’s needs. The count is organized by All Home, a county-chartered organization that aims to end homelessness.

“We continue to be in a very acute crisis and homelessness is still in a state of emergency in our community,” said Kira Zylstra, assistant director of All Home. “I don’t have strong anticipation that there would be any reduction in numbers, but I always wait to see what we find. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

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