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Homeless decrease from recent count ‘defies common sense’

A homeless encampment on public and private property near NW 46th Street in Seattle. (City of Seattle)

The annual King County homeless count showed significant progress for the first time in years, but some are skeptical about the results.

Full Seattle homeless count report shows who is on the street and why

For one night a year, there’s a head count of the county homeless population, known as the “Point in Time” count. That also involves some follow-up surveys to get a more detailed picture of the circumstances and needs of the region’s homeless.

Generally, they show increases in the homeless population, but not this year, with a decrease that’s had some wondering how accurate the count really is.

“Some things that were found, almost defy common sense,” King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Wells said.

Kira Zylstra is the Executive Director of All Home, the agency that conducts the one night Point in Time Count. She went over the numbers for the county council on Tuesday.

“The overall results show that on one given night in January in 2019, there were 11,199 people estimated to be sheltered and unsheltered in King County — this indicated an overall decrease of 8 percent, and a decrease of 17 percent among the unsheltered population,” she described.

Those numbers represent the first time the count has gone down in seven years. One other major takeaway from the count is that more people were seen living in tents or unsanctioned encampments, and fewer were living in vehicles, such as RVs.

According to Zylstra, those changes spur the need to look at as much information as they can to find out why, so that the city and county can tackle homelessness head on.

Kohl-Wells pointed to data that seems to fly in the face of what people see on the streets every day.

“For example, drops in the unsheltered, chronic homelessness is about 64 percent, [and] drops in unsheltered adults who appear to have mental illness issues [are] at 52 percent, that doesn’t match with the perceptions,” she said.

Zylstra explained they had more people take part in the survey this year, and that the process is multi-faceted in how it weighs and records data.

“I point out every time that this particular effort has its limitations — particularly the data points you are asking about here really depend on the survey responses. This is information that can’t be captured through observation only,” she said.

King County notes first drop in homeless count since 2012

Others across the city also expressed concerns with those supposed huge drops in the most controversial category of the homeless population: Those living in tents and dealing with drug addiction and mental health issues.

Among the skeptics was Seattle City Councilmember Lorena Gonzales, who told The Seattle Times that the numbers in the report don’t match what she’s seen herself, and warned against reading too much into the numbers.

Others agreed, including the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which noted that the count indicates a decrease in homelessness that don’t seem to track with reality.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan touted the count as an overall positive for the city’s efforts to combat homelessness.

“This new one-night count shows that our work and data-driven investments over the last year to prevent and address homelessness is having an impact,” Durkan said in a news release. Durkan’s statement added that “we have a lot more work to do.”

The Point in Time count only reflects a snapshot of homelessness on one specific night. In 2018, the point in time count was 12,112, but over that same year, the county’s Homeless Management Information System counted 22,500 households accessing homelessness services.

This year’s count also showed — for the third straight year — 24 percent of people say they’re homeless because they lost a job.

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