The annual homeless count across King County took place early last Friday morning, resulting in 97 people counted on Vashon, the highest number in the several years the island has participated.
Eight people volunteered for the federally mandated event, called Count Us In. Between 3 and 6 a.m. Jan. 25, they traveled Vashon and Maury islands in teams of two, looking for people sleeping in cars, sheds and tents. They were led by community activist Hilary Emmer, who has been involved with several counts in recent years.
“The number of homeless people is increasing,” she said following the count. “More and more people are losing their housing, and a lot times their choice is to be homeless or move off the island.”
The tally closest to this year’s was 77, in 2017. Last year’s count came in much lower at 38, but Emmer said most social service providers did not believe that number was accurate. She believes this year’s total, about 1 percent of the island’s population, is the minimum baseline number of homeless people on Vashon-Maury.
Participants this year included several executive directors of social service agencies: Carol Goertzel from Vashon Youth & Family Services; Catherine Swearingen of the Vashon Senior Center; Robbie Rohr from the Vashon-Maury Community Food Bank; Heidi Jackson from DOVE, as well as Mary Van Gemert from the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness, Kyle Britz, also from DOVE, and Dan Auer, who lives on the island and works for King County Housing Authority.
Emmer divided the island at SW 204th Street with one team taking the whole southern section and three other groups dividing the northern portion of the island. In all, they tallied 32 people south of 204th and 65 north of that line.
DOVE’s Britz was part of the team that counted homeless people in an area that included town. He stressed that the count is only a snapshot in time and does not include people who might be “couch surfing” with a friend or family member, rotating among houses or those in a variety of other precarious living situations.
He noted that many people they counted were going about their business — walking, reading, having a snack. The island’s homeless population includes people who work and appear to be going about a “regular” life, he said, but in actuality commute to their jobs from a car or campsite.
“It could be anybody,” he added.
Emmer did not participate in the count last year, citing frustration with the lack of services the island has received from the county and state to help provide support for homeless people or to prevent homelessness. This year, a King County official asked her to participate in the event again, she said, and she complied. But she voiced the same frustration, saying she believes the island receives nothing in return for the effort of the count and submitting the results. She acknowledged that the county has recently provided funds — more than $7 million for two different affordable housing projects — but that she is referring to “on-the-ground” services, such as those provided by a public health nurse or social worker.
She also noted that completion of Vashon HouseHold’s latest project, which is slated to house homeless people and others south of town, is two years off and that more assistance is needed before then.
At the newly created Department of Local Services, intended to improve King County services to unincorporated areas, Director John Taylor said the count is important — and said he intends to increase support for human services on the island.
“You make a case for services with numbers. You cannot solve a problem you can’t see,” he said.
He added that he could not speak to the past, but noted his intent for the future.
“We are going to be here and trying to be helpful to all the human service groups on island in any way we can, advocating for more services,” he said. “Numbers help tell that story.”