One night a year, Seattle tries to count all of its homeless residents. This is how volunteers do it
Small trails that lead away from the road. The sound of a generator. The glint of canvas in the glare of a flashlight.
These are just some of the things that Daniel Long was looking for in the wee hours of Friday morning. To him, they’re all indicators that someone who is homeless may be living nearby.
Long, who is homeless himself, joined nearly 1,000 volunteers who spread out across King County on Friday morning to try to get a sense of how many people are experiencing homelessness here right now.
He acted as a guide for one of the small groups that fanned out to canvass all 398 census tracts in the county.
Between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., volunteers were tasked with counting tents, individuals, and vehicles that look like they’re being lived in.
Each community must conduct the count at least once every two years to be eligible for federal funding for homeless services. In King County, the tally is conducted every year.
In 2018, more than 12,000 people were counted as homeless on a single night in January.
The results from this year’s count won’t be available for several months. And even then, they’re likely to be an undercount. Still, officials say the yearly snapshot is useful, allowing them to count people who may not appear in other data sets because they don’t access services.
As volunteers trickled back from their counts Friday morning, reports varied on what they’d seen.
Kira Zylstra is acting director of All Home King County, the group that coordinates the count. She said some groups had not seen a single person who was homeless, while others needed extra tally sheets because of the high number of people in their designated area.
When the report is released later this year, it will include the number of people counted sleeping on the streets, as well as those in transitional housing and shelter.
It will also include information from a survey that will be conducted in the coming weeks to help better understand who is experiencing homelessness and why.
Zylstra said Friday that she doesn’t know what this year’s count will show, but she doesn’t expect to see a big decrease in the numbers.