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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Annual survey counts 15% fewer homeless people in Spokane County

Volunteer Emily Thorn gathers information from Ron Wilson for the annual point-in-time count survey of the homeless population in Spokane in January 2020 during the Blessings Under the Bridge free meal at Fourth Avenue and McClellan Street.  (COLIN MULVANY/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County’s homeless population decreased since early 2023, reversing a yearslong upward trend, according to an annual survey with a number of caveats.

The 2024 point-in-time count, a survey taken each January involving hundreds of volunteers mobilizing across the county, found 2,021 living on the streets and in shelters, down from 2,390 during the 2023 survey.

Of those homeless people counted, there were far fewer people who are not accessing any kind of shelter and were left to live on the streets. Specifically, the number of people without access to shelter fell from 955 in January 2023 to 443 in January 2024.

The annual point-in-time count, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires of counties that receive federal funding, had shown a steady increase in homelessness in Spokane County since 2016, when 981 people were counted. The only exception to the upward trend prior to this year occurred in 2021 when the pandemic interfered with the counting.

“It’s good news that the curve is bending in the right direction, and in particular the decrease in unsheltered, unhoused population,” Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown said in a Monday interview. “My sense is that the resolution of Camp Hope was part of that drop.”

Camp Hope closed on June 9, 2023, as the last people left the vacant East Central lot that had at one point been the tenuous home of more than 600 people at its peak during the summer of 2022.

This year’s drop in recorded homelessness follows a sizable spike in 2023, when volunteers counted a 36% increase in unhoused people compared to the 1,757 counted in 2022.

The data has a number of red flags that complicate interpretation, including long-standing concerns by homelessness data experts that point-in-time counts are “severely flawed,” as characterized in a 2017 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

“Unfortunately, the methods used by HUD to conduct the (point-in-time) counts produce a significant undercount of the homeless population at a given point in time,” the report’s authors stated. “In addition, regardless of their methodology or execution, point in time counts fail to account for the transitory nature of homelessness and thus present a misleading picture of the crisis.”

The report notes that the point-in-time count relies on volunteers actually finding everyone who is homeless, and points to a study of homeless shelters in New York that found that 31% of their users would otherwise sleep in places “classified as ‘Not-Visible’ the night of the count.”

The state Department of Commerce’s Snapshot of Homelessness, which estimates the scope of homelessness in a community through information from government agencies and other social service providers, reported that Spokane’s homeless population in 2022 was more than eight times larger than was counted in that year’s point-in-time tally.

More specific difficulties relying on the Spokane County data include the closure of Camp Hope, once the largest encampment in the state, many of the former residents of which may now be harder to locate and artificially deflating the tally of homeless people living without shelter. The city acknowledged in a Monday news release that having hundreds of people at the same site made it easier for volunteers to get a count.

Brown noted that this flaw was not unique to the 2024 count. The counts are typically organized to locate and address places where homeless people are known to live.

The count’s breakdown of how many homeless people have access to shelter also may have been skewed by the January time frame, as the Brown administration quickly brought emergency shelter space online during a bitter cold snap, temporarily reopening the Cannon Street Shelter and working with local nonprofits to use churches to briefly keep an additional 100 people off the streets during the dangerous weather.

“Both the increase in the sheltered population and decrease in the unsheltered population are a reflection of the Cannon Shelter temporarily re-opening in January 2024 during an emergency cold snap and an increase in emergency shelter beds to address the immediate need,” the city’s Monday news release acknowledged.

Additionally, as Camp Hope was winding down last year, many of the people there moved to low-barrier shelter beds at the Trent Resource and Assistance Center and more service-intensive supportive housing at the Catalyst Project. But as the Brown administration has worked to decommission the Trent shelter, looking to deprioritize low-barrier congregant shelters, the number of beds there has fallen from 400 in January when the count occurred to 250 by March.

All told, if the count was conducted today, it appears likely that the number of homeless people using local shelters is significantly lower than the January count suggests.

The Brown administration this summer will seek contracts with local service providers and facilities to build out the new mayor’s strategy for responding to homelessness in the city. These include a $3.85 million contract for a housing navigation center operator and service provider to help homeless people connect with the proper services; $9 million for affordable housing development; and another $4.5 million for various housing services available to not just the homeless but also the elderly, veterans and other qualifying populations.

Funding for these programs includes a Commerce grant, leftover COVID-19 relief funds and the city’s affordable housing sales tax fund approved by the Spokane City Council in 2020, often referred to as 1590 funds, as it was authorized by the state Legislature’s House Bill 1590. Collections from the city’s 1590 funds have remained largely unspent.

As jurisdictions including the city of Spokane and Spokane County continue to discuss a possible regional collaboration to address homelessness, Brown hopes that some of these pilot programs, particularly the navigation center, will help provide better data.

“We do hope and plan to make that part of a regional conversation, and regional partners are going to have a role to play here,” Brown said.