The New Homelessness Count Numbers Are Bad. But What Do They Tell Us?

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The latest homelessness count is out, the numbers are (as expected) bad—although the methodology this year is different, making direct comparisons somewhat dicey, the total number of homeless King County residents is up, and more people are living on Seattle and King County streets unsheltered than in any previous count.

But what does the King County Point-In-Time Count (formerly known as the One Night Count) reveal about our county’s population? What does it say about how well our efforts to address the homelessness crisis are working? And what conclusions can we draw from its findings, which show progress on some fronts but stagnation on others? And finally, how much do the numbers give a true picture of the crisis—and what do they obscure?

First, the numbers. The PIT count, which was conducted for King County’s coordinating agency for homeless services, All Home, by the California Company Applied Survey Research at a cost of $120,000, found 11,643 people living in shelters, on the streets, or in transitional housing across King County; of those, 5,845 were living unsheltered—on the streets, in vehicles, in tents, or in abandoned buildings. In Seattle, those numbers were 3,857 and 4,665, respectively. Last year’s count found 4,505 people living unsheltered in King County, and 2,942 in Seattle, although All Home director Mark Putnam pointed out yesterday that the different methodology the two counts used make  a side-by-side comparison difficult.

“We think we did a better job this year of counting,” Putnam said. “We saw more people counted in some of the encampments, because last year we did not count in the Duwamish Greenbelt, or ‘the Jungle,’ and we were out in Covington and all over the county counting.” Previous counts, which were done by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, zeroed in on areas where people were known to be living unsheltered, rather than surveying every single one of the county’s 398 Census districts (Putnam said this year’s count got to 396 of them). Surveying Southeast King County—a vast geographic areas that includes Covington, Black Diamond, and Enumclaw—added 70 people to the unsheltered count, and including Northeast King County, an even larger area encompassing towns like North Bend, Issaquah, and Sammamish, added 119 people. All told, counting the largely unincorporated far eastern portion of the county contributed about 2 percent to the total unsheltered homeless population count.

This year’s count also used paid “guides”—people who were previously homeless and were familiar with the areas they were surveying—to assist volunteers in getting an accurate count. (Skeptics of the new methodology noted that parts of Seattle had fewer people counting this year, and pointed out that some areas were counted by car, rather than on foot, which could have skewed the count. The previous methodology also included survey data, although it was compiled by shelter and transitional housing staff, not a survey company. Critics—like Real Change vendor and board member Shelly Cohen, who testified yesterday at a joint city-county briefing on the numbers—have also argued that All Home should have released the raw count data as soon as they knew the numbers back in January, instead of waiting four months to analyze the data; “you don’t need all the fancy details” to release the preliminary numbers, Cohen said. Putnam responded to such criticism yesterday by noting that other communities that have used similar methodology have yet to release their own detailed homeless data from counts that were also performed in January).

Another difference this year is that ASR interviewed a sample of the county’s homeless population to get a sense of their demographics, including race, sexual orientation, and the reasons they became homeless. The survey also asked people who said they slept in vehicles or tents how many people they lived with, producing a set of multipliers (for example, 1.3 people per tent, or 1.4 per car) that replaced the old multiplier of 2; a lower multiplier, obviously, yields a lower estimate for people living in cars, tents, RVs, vans, and abandoned buildings than a higher one does, which could indicate that the actual number of people living unsheltered has gone up even more precipitously than this year’s numbers indicate.

ASR’s survey for King County largely mirrors the findings of a similar, but separate, survey the company performed for the city of Seattle earlier this year. The new survey, which duplicates the company’s previous efforts and expands them to include the rest of the county, once again punctures several myths about King County’s homeless population. The vast majority (77 percent) were living in permanent housing in King County when they became homeless, and just 9 percent became homeless out of state before moving to King County. Fifty-seven percent have lived in King County for five years or more. People of color are overrepresented in the homeless population, with 55 percent identifying as people of color, and a large number of homeless youth (28 percent) identified as LGBTQ, compared to 14 percent in the rest of the homeless population.

Forty percent of the respondents to ASR’s survey reported a history of domestic violence, including 7 percent who said they were currently in an abusive relationship. Nineteen percent reported a history of foster care. Half said they had at least one physical disability or disabling behavioral health condition, such as psychiatric or emotional conditions (45 percent), drug or alcohol abuse (36 percent) and post-traumatic stress disorder (34 percent).

Forty percent of the respondents to ASR’s survey reported a history of domestic violence, including 7 percent who said they were currently in an abusive relationship. Nineteen percent reported a history of foster care. Half said they had at least one physical disability or disabling behavioral health condition, such as psychiatric or emotional conditions (45 percent), drug or alcohol abuse (36 percent) and post-traumatic stress disorder (34 percent). About 29 percent were employed full-time, part-time, or seasonally, and about 37 percent of those who were unemployed said they had had a job within the last six months.

At a briefing yesterday on the numbers, Putnam, Seattle Human Services Department Director Catherine Lester, and King County Community and Human Services Adrienne Quinn touted the sharp reduction in family homelessness—according to the count, just 3 percent of the county’s unsheltered homeless population consisted of families with children, the result, Quinn said, of “a significant community-wide effort to make sure that no family in this community is unsheltered.” Amazon, for example, recently announced plans to provide Mary’s Place Family Shelter a permanent shelter for 200 homeless women, children, and families on its campus. Similarly, Putnam said yesterday, “All the increase in permanent housing … was on the family side.”

HSD Director Catherine Lester, All Home director Mark Putnam, King County department of Community and Human Services director Adrienne Quinn

But siting shelters for homeless men, who make up almost two-thirds (62 percent) of the county’s homeless population and 71 percent of the chronically homeless population, defined as those who have been homeless for a year or longer, who have experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years, and who have a condition that prevents them from maintaining work or housing. These men, Quinn noted, are the hardest and most controversial group to house. Housed people are generally fine living next to women with babies, but when the county wants to site a shelter for single men, “we get pushback [and] it becomes a highly controversial issue.”

“We have tried to site those facilities, and we do have a number of them, but this is where a broader community effort could really facilitate getting people indoors and stabilizing people and helping them to connect with the services that they need,” Quinn said. “We’ve put an ask out to the business community to say, are there spaces we could convert to single adult shelters, particularly in non-residential areas?” So far, the business community has not responded.

“Permanent,” Putnam told me, means that you’ve signed a lease in your own name—not that you’re able to maintain it. In other words, people who are cut off from rapid rehousing vouchers—which happens, Putnam said, after an average of five months—could be almost anywhere.

Another qualified success has been in the area of rapid rehousing—the strategy of giving homeless people short-term vouchers for privately owned apartments with the expectation that they will make enough money to pay full market rent within a few months. Yesterday, Putnam touted the success of the county’s current rapid rehousing programs—of those who sign up for the program, he said, 61 percent are able to find housing within four months, and 95 percent “are in permanent housing” after their subsidy ends—but those numbers require some parsing.

First, 61 percent after four months means that people are remaining homeless for four months before signing up for a housing voucher—and that one in four aren’t getting housing through the program at all.

Second, about that 95 percent success rate: It took some prodding, but eventually, both Putnam and Quinn acknowledged that when they say people in the program were able to stay in “permanent” housing, they don’t actually know how long any of the people in the county’s rapid rehousing programs were able to maintain housing, because no one tracks that data. “Permanent,” Putnam told me, means that you’ve signed a lease in your own name—not that you’re able to maintain it. In other words, people who are cut off from rapid rehousing vouchers—which happens, Putnam said, after an average of five months—could be almost anywhere.

“We track returns to homelessness,” Quinn said, but that only counts people who reenter the county’s formal homelessness system—which means it may not account for most who have been evicted, broken their lease, or ended up couch-surfing, living with family,  or homeless in a different jurisdiction. Sleeping on a friend’s couch is undoubtedly better than sleeping in a doorway, but it isn’t “permanent housing” by any stretch. Quinn said the county simply doesn’t “have the evaluation dollars to track them long-term. We do have some studies that we’re doing with the Gates Foundation” that will provide more clarity on where voucher recipients end up, “but those studies are very expensive,” she says.

Ultimately, the agencies acknowledged, the problem comes down to the lack of affordable housing in King County; indeed, 92 percent of survey respondents said they would move into housing immediately if it was affordable and available, and 23 percent said they became homeless because of issues related to housing affordability. And even as the county continues to spend tens of millions of dollars a year on homelessness, the problem keeps getting worse—Quinn said yesterday that about 40 percent of the people counted in this year’s number were newly homeless. “We saw many people really needing rental assistance rents [as] rose in King County,” Quinn said. “We need more housing that people can afford. That’s the crux of the issue.”

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