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Seattle won’t be counting its unsheltered homeless population this year, a number that could be higher than ever

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 6, 2021

By Scott Greenstone Seattle Times

This year will mark the first time since at least 1980 there won’t be a count of people living outside in Seattle. The homeless census occurs every year on January 21st and provides a snapshot of how many people are living on the streets and in shelters within King County.

The federal government requires every county in the U.S. to perform the count every two years, but King County has done it every year since before that mandate.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development granted permission to King County to not conduct the count over concerns around exposing volunteers and people being counted to the coronavirus.

“We’ve always put out a team,” said Colleen Echohawk, who runs a service center for homeless Native Americans in Pioneer Square called Chief Seattle Club, and co-chairs the board that voted to ask for a federal waiver. “There’s no way I’m asking a team to go out there in the middle of the night … with a lot of undiagnosed COVID in our community.”

Typically, every year, volunteers around the country meet in the earliest hours of the morning, pile into cars and fan out into downtowns, neighborhoods and parks to count people in tents, vehicles or abandoned buildings.

Officials concede it is a flawed way to count people living outside, in cars or other places unfit for human habitation, but it’s the only national count the country has and provides data that is used to allocate funding at every level of government.

It’s unclear how much COVID-19 has spread in unsheltered camps because there’s been little testing outside, but December was the worst month yet for COVID spread in homeless shelters, meal programs and housing facilities, with hundreds of cases reported.

Outdoor camps in Seattle appear to have proliferated throughout the last year as shelters have been forced to downsize and space people out. The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness estimates that between January and July 2020 the county lost at least 400 beds.

But without a count, it’s likely the region won’t have a good idea of how much outdoor camps have grown until mid-2022. That’s “unfortunate,” said Dr. Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania researcher, because it means officials will have little idea of whether the camps have grown because of newly homeless people, or people who are scared of staying in shelters.

“We need to know — is there a real surge happening, or are we just seeing the displacement effect of the COVID crisis in the shelters?” Culhane said. “It’s so crucial to have some kind of barometer on what’s happening.”

A few of Culhane’s fellow researchers at the University of Pennsylvania released guidance last week, after King County was granted a waiver, for how to conduct a safe count, including counting over multiple days. They recommended using professional outreach workers rather than volunteers, and entering numbers in a mobile app rather than paper surveys, which King County enumerators did last year.

But it’s up to each county and city to decide whether or not doing the count is best for them, according to Steve Berg, vice president for policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which lobbies the federal government on behalf of shelters and nonprofits around the country and is distributing researchers’ guidance to its partners around the country.

“We don’t want anybody in the homeless world to be pressured to do this,” Berg said. “It is unfortunate because I think we’ve got some real problems this year… one of them is that there’s too many people on the street, and I think in a lot of places it’s gotten worse, and we won’t be able to know that for sure.”

Organizing such a count has always been a huge effort, said Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, which has been invovled for decades and managed the count until 2016.

“We have to recognize that six or seven thousand people are outside after the shelters are full. Every night,” Eisinger said. That doesn’t negate the good work at is done in shelters … it tells us, painfully, truthfully, every damn January, here is the gap between what we’re doing and what people need.”

County government took over the last three years, and its staff will be focused instead on responding to the recent surge in cases, Sherry Hamilton, a county spokesperson, said in an email. A count of people in shelters and hotels will still happen, but with the shelter shrinkage, that will be far from accurate.

“The number of unsheltered homeless people that we list for 2021 is probably going to have an asterisk next to it for years to come,” Berg said.

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