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Number of King County homeless up nearly 14% since 2020, 57% remain unsheltered

May 23, 2022, 11:18 AM
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In an aerial view, a homeless encampment, known informally as "Dope Slope" stands covered in garbage near downtown Seattle on March 12, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The number of homeless individuals has grown 13.8% over the last two years, according to King County Regional Homeless Authority’s Point in Time (PIT) Count, while the percentage of sheltered homeless dropped 10%.

In 2020, the percentage of homeless who had access to shelter on a consistent basis was 53% compared to those unsheltered at 47%. Two years later, the amount of homeless with shelter is just 43%.

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PIT Count is an estimate of people experiencing sheltered and unsheltered homelessness on a single night in King County. The main count of people living unsheltered is conducted by approximately 600 volunteers spread across the county between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., assisted by paid “guides” who have experienced homelessness in the past and whose knowledge can help locate homeless people off the beaten path.

A separate count is conducted of homeless individuals who are sheltered: in emergency shelters, sanctioned encampments, “tiny home” villages, transitional housing, and other forms of temporary shelter.

This data is widely understood to be an undercount.

The recent King County Department of Community and Human Services Cross Systems Homelessness Analysis found that at least 40,871 people experienced homelessness at some point in 2020.

Based on the PIT Count, 25% of people experiencing homelessness in King County identify as Black, while, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, only 7% of King County’s population identifies as Black. Similarly, 9% of people experiencing homelessness identify as American Indian, Alaskan Native, or Indigenous, but that group makes up only 1% of King County’s population.

51% identified with having a disability, while 31% identified with having a mental health disorder. 37% reported they are suffering from a substance abuse problem.

The release of this data came with a decision to pivot from the organization’s original plan to scrap the count. In November 2021, the Regional Homeless Authority (RHA) announced it was not planning on releasing a PIT Count for 2022.

“Because of the methodology, the PIT is widely understood to be an undercount, which can be harmful in skewing the narrative and limiting the budget and resources dedicated to solutions,” the RHA wrote in a statement. “Instead, we will conduct qualitative engagement with people living unsheltered to learn more about their experiences and how we can better meet their needs.”

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The PIT Count has been a controversial strategy for accurately tracking homeless data. The 2019 PIT count showed a drop in homelessness, but SCC Insight argued there were several reasons to question the accuracy of the count and the companion survey, including fluctuating sample sizes, a sampling bias, and the reliance on inconsistent volunteers and guides.

The 2020 PIT count faced similar issues, with terrible weather and a lack of volunteers on the night of the count marring the operation.

The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development requires local jurisdictions for homelessness programs to conduct an annual count of homeless people within the jurisdiction in order to receive federal funding.

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Number of King County homeless up nearly 14% since 2020, 57% remain unsheltered