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Walking Seattle in dead silence, counting the homeless

The primary purpose of the One Night Count is to document how many people still lack basic shelter. Volunteers have been counting the homeless in Seattle, one night in January, for the past 33 years. (Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness photo)

Two sets of tennis shoes stick out from a wool blanket. The gray, worn soles appear to belong to a man. The small pink shoes next to them would fit a child.

Two people huddled in a doorway of a business off 1st Avenue and Blanchard were among the thousands of people who live and sleep on the streets of Seattle.

A few years ago, I crawled out of my warm bed at 1:00 in the morning to meet with hundreds of other volunteers to count the homeless living on the streets.

It’s a project The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness has done for 33 years. The mission was simply to count the number of homeless people living on the streets.

1, 2, 3,…

We whisper as we check our maps. With flashlights, we walk an area from 5th Avenue to the Seattle Waterfront, and from Stewart Street to Battery Street. It’s about a 35 block area.

13, 14, 15,…

We begin to count every person we see huddling under a blanket, staying in a tent or cardboard box, and sleeping in a car. We don’t interact with anyone. We don’t wake anyone up. We just count.

27, 28, 29,…

Most of the homeless were bundled under layers of blankets or tarp. It’s difficult to know whether they are men or women. A few are walking around. A security guard urged one man sitting in a doorway to keep moving.

44, 45, 46,…

You don’t know your city until you walk it in the dead silence of the night; looking for the people most of us try to avoid seeing during the day.

89, 90, 91.

The Noel House team I was with counted 91 homeless people in our assigned area. In all there were 2,140 unsheltered homeless in King County the year I did the count in 2007.

In 2012 2,594 men, women, and children were without shelter during the three hour street count.

This year 2,736 homeless were counted, which is a five-percent increase over last year.

Over 900 volunteers went out with 125 trained team leaders to pre-arranged areas in parts of Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond, Shoreline, Kenmore, Bothell, Woodinville, Kent, Federal Way, Renton, Auburn, and White Center.

“The results are impossible to misinterpret: several thousand men, women, and children lack safety and stability,” says Alison Eisinger, organizer of the count.

“When hundreds of people see their neighbors sleeping on cardboard or riding buses to keep warm, they are shocked and saddened. We want them to be inspired to urge their local and state officials to address these needs with resources.”


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