Yearly count finds fewer homeless in King County
Despite a deep recession, 5 percent fewer people now live on the streets of King County than a year ago, according to the county's annual One Night Count of homeless not in shelters.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Don Castle wove his way through the thick brush beneath Interstate 5, moving his flashlight methodically along the ground. After several minutes, he spotted a man across the road and made a quick tally before turning to leave the thicket.
Castle and nearly 1,000 other volunteers canvassed King County early Friday as part of the county's One Night Count of the homeless not living in shelters.
The 30th annual count, conducted between 2 and 7 a.m., revealed that despite a deep recession, about 5 percent fewer people were living on the county's streets than a year ago.
Counters found 2,759 people sleeping in vehicles, under freeways, behind trash bins, in doorways, on buses, inside cardboard boxes and in homeless encampments. Last year, volunteers canvassed a slightly smaller area and counted 2,827.
Officials applauded the results but cautioned that homelessness is still a crisis.
"More than 2,700 people slept outside last night, and that is way too many," said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH), which has run the count since its beginning in 1980. "It's a cliché to say it's unacceptable. It is, of course, unacceptable for one of the wealthiest countries of the world to have children sleeping in cars and mentally disabled sleeping in doorways."
An estimated 6,000 people slept in the county's emergency shelters or transitional housing, meaning there were nearly 9,000 homeless in King County during the count, said Bill Block, director of the Committee to End Homelessness. About three times that number are homeless in the course of a year, he added.
The count is understood as a minimum number because homeless people can be very good at hiding, Block said.
In all, 978 volunteers participated in the 14-city event, which is mandatory for governmental bodies that receive federal funding to combat homelessness. Last year, the county received $24 million, using it to maintain existing programs while creating 1,100 new units of permanent housing for clients who had been homeless.
The count is also used to determine how well county housing programs are working.
"It is evidence that our efforts are working," said Block, citing large increases in homelessness in other parts of the country. "It shows that what we're investing in works."
At the least, the decrease is a positive sign after a year in which the county lost 23,000 jobs, according to a state report released last week.
The Washington State Employment Situation Report found that more than 94,000 King County residents were on unemployment in December, 8.5 percent of the work force. In December 2008, 5.6 percent were on unemployment.
Foreclosures have also skyrocketed in the last year, with filings in 2009 up nearly 60 percent over 2008 in King County, according to a RealtyTrac report released earlier this month. One in 80 county homes received some kind of default or foreclosure notification in 2009.
The results are also a step forward for the county's Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, now in its fifth year. The plan focuses on moving the homeless from shelters to supportive housing units that are linked to social services.
On Friday morning, volunteers found 891 people in vehicles, 331 walking around and 316 in some sort of makeshift structure. They counted the majority, 1,986, in Seattle. That's a slight increase over last year, when 1,976 were found in the city. Other popular locations were Federal Way, with 181, and night-owl buses, with 165.
In Seattle's Chinatown International District, Castle led 10 others who searched in alleys, construction sites and brush.
"I work in a high-rise. I don't see this side very often," said Mike Pierson, a 53-year-old Seattle attorney and member of Castle's team. "Unfortunately, it's a reality of our city and our world."
In three hours of careful counting, the team tallied 210 homeless.
One of them was Roger "Phoenix" Miller.
Miller, 58, and homeless for nine years, sat on the ground waiting for a 3:30 a.m. bus to take him to his camp in the Central District. He said he worked as a greeting-card maker before falling on hard luck.
"Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's hard," said Miller, wearing a black jacket, striped shirt, bluejeans and a San Francisco Giants hat. "I don't like the shelters. I don't like anybody telling me I have to get up at 5:30 a.m."
Miller said he uses other King County homeless services, like food banks. Those services and others are in danger because of looming state budget cuts, another impact of the recession. Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed 2010-2011 budget includes more than $950 million in cuts to human services, although Gregoire has said she favors higher taxes to save programs.
In a speech to volunteers before the count, Eisinger asked for help in lobbying for funding. She also urged them to stay involved in the fight.
The count itself helps educate citizens about the problem of homelessness, SKCCH spokesman Joshua Okrent said.
"Just getting 1,000 people out to see homeless on the street has a tremendous impact," he said. "They're essentially invisible until you look for them. Once you look for them, they're everywhere."
Early numbers from Snohomish County's annual count showed homelessness there had also slightly decreased, according to a news release. Counters on Friday found 2,291 homeless, including 908 not in shelters.
Brian Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or email@example.com
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