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Latest count indicates possible rise in King County homeless population

A homeless camp in Ballard. (Photo: Rob Harwood)

The latest point-in-time count in King County indicates that the region’s homeless population has potentially grown since 2019.

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The count — performed on Jan. 24, 2020 — identified 11,751 individuals experiencing homelessness in Seattle/King County, a 5% increase over the previous year. Additionally, 53% of those people were unsheltered.

The largest numbers by far were recorded in Seattle, where 8,166 homeless individuals were counted. The next highest total (1,937) was identified in Southwest King County.

Demographically, homelessness continues to disproportionately affect people of color. Despite composing 7% of the total population of Seattle/King County, 25% of the homeless individuals counted in 2020 were Black. Native Americans and Alaska Natives compose 1% of the region’s population, and 15% of the 2020 homeless count.

There was also a reported increase in the rate of individuals living in vehicles, from 19% in 2019, to 23% in 2020. That’s at least partially attributed to “the expansion of safe parking programs.”

While there were increases over totals in counts from both 2019 and 2017, 2020’s numbers were still lower than the peak the region saw in 2018, when 12,112 homeless individuals were identified. In 2018, just 48% of those who were counted were sheltered. Twenty-eight percent were living in a vehicle, 18% were in transitional housing, 30% were housed in emergency shelters, and 8% were in tents and/or an unsanctioned encampment.

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In 2020, 35% of those counted were in emergency shelters, 10% were in tents or unsanctioned camps, and 18% were in transitional housing.

In past years, some have questioned whether point-in-time counts provide accurate data on the region’s homeless population.

“Some things that were found, almost defy common sense,” King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Wells said after 2019’s numbers were released.

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

“For example, drops in the unsheltered, chronic homelessness [in 2019] are about 64% [and] drops in unsheltered adults who appear to have mental illness issues [are] at 52%, that doesn’t match with the perceptions,” she said.

Those who manage and perform the counts have defended the process as 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,” All Home Executive Director Kira Zylstra told the county council last year.

All Home is the agency that performs the yearly point-in-time counts.

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