In the cold, rainy hours before dawn on Jan. 24, volunteers set out across King County to conduct the annual tally of those living in vehicles, derelict buildings, sanctioned encampments and emergency shelters. Their count, at most, amounts to only a snapshot of homelessness taken on one night that identified 11,751 people lacking stable housing in the region.
This year, the Point-in-Time Count results show an overall increase of 5% in people experiencing homelessness compared to 2019, according to the latest demographics released this month, with 53% sheltered and 47% unsheltered.
The findings were derived from a variety of sources including direct observations and post-count surveys targeted through various outreach agencies and service providers.
The county and city of Seattle use the data to guide policy and decision making and to gauge the scale, scope and needs of people who are homeless. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires the annual count, which it uses to make funding decisions.
11,751, and counting
The report noted there has been an increase in individuals living in vehicles from 2019 to 2020, a trend that may be due to the expansion of safe parking programs across the region. The poor weather conditions may have skewed the count, showing an increase of those staying in abandoned buildings and a decrease in those on the street or outside.
The report also noted that compared to the overall population of Seattle and the greater county, homelessness disproportionately impacts people of color. According to surveys conducted as part of the count report, Native American/Alaska Native people made up 1% of the population in Seattle/King County, but 15% of the number of respondents experiencing homelessness. Black/African Americans are 7% of the Seattle/King County population, but 25% of the respondents. Latin persons are 10% of the Seattle/King County population, but 15% of the survey respondents.
Men are experiencing higher rates of homelessness compared to women, transgender and gender non-conforming groups, but the rate of women experiencing homelessness has continued to increase since 2018. Moreover, some of the largest increases since 2019 of people experiencing homelessness have been among populations with mental health disorders such as depression or schizophrenia, seeing as much as an 18-percentage point increase. The number of homeless suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and drug and alcohol addiction both increased by 12-percentage points.
A new data dashboard offers details about the flow of households accessing support through the regional homeless system, critical to understanding the magnitude of the crisis and the solutions needed.
And there are recent efforts underway to do just that. Back in December, county executive Dow Constantine and Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan created the Regional Homelessness Authority, meant to oversee policymaking, funding and services for people experiencing homelessness. Members of the new governing committee who represent it met last week, and among them is councilmember Joe McDermott. Acknowledging public comment about the absence of those with perspectives on senior and elderly homelessness in the group, McDermott said he hopes leaders of the homelessness authority will advocate for the many over-represented communities facing the crisis “to solve the entire problem, and not just be looking out for the particular experience they bring or awareness their community brings.”
Meanwhile, the county is working to collect a great deal of information about the characteristics of homelessness in the region.
Accompanying the Point-in-Time Count’s release is an update to online data dashboards that depict consistently collected data from the region’s Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS), a digital database of County-wide homelessness services. Monthly data in HMIS shows an increase in households connecting with homeless services over the past year. Despite increased system capacity and efficiency, however, the rate at which people are becoming homeless continues to outpace the ability to house them within existing resources.
According to the report, 71% of the people who were homeless during the count, sheltered and unsheltered, were living in Seattle, followed by the southwest region of the county — that’s Vashon Island plus the cities of Auburn, Algona, Burien, Des Moines, Federal Way, Kent, Milton, Normandy Park, Pacific, Renton, SeaTac and Tukwila — with 16%.
The rest included homeless that were counted in the cities of Bellevue, Issaquah, Mercer Island and Kirkland to the east, with 9%.
Making do with less
The report no longer breaks the count down to the number of homeless in individual municipalities. But on the island, Hilary Emmer of the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness (IFCH) said that the group is aware of 147 people on Vashon with unstable housing — including couch surfers and those residing in parked motor homes, vehicles or sheds on private property — in addition to those living rough outdoors in tents.
For islanders with housing but who are experiencing financial hardship or, more recently, job loss as a result of the shutdown of the economy, IFCH may be able to subsidize the cost of utilities or provide rental assistance on a case by case basis, along with other local partners. Often in such situations, IFCH will step in to provide additional support to households in need, paying for prescription drugs, for example, or distributing VIGA Farm Bucks from the island’s Food Access Partnership to be used at farm stands on Vashon. The group has also covered the cost of car insurance payments and vehicle repairs, Emmer said, noting that people who live in their vehicles rely on them to earn their livelihoods.
With a staggering number of islanders out of work after Gov. Jay Inslee issued the Stay Home, Stay Safe order in March, Emmer and IFCH have been fundraising and grant writing aggressively to support rent subsidies that have served over two dozen families each month since the pandemic began, a majority of whom are Latinx or do not qualify for unemployment benefits. And she has almost single-handedly collected nearly $100,000 in private donations from islanders. But contributions have been dropping off steadily while the threat of a new stay home order looms on the horizon with COVID-19 cases in the state rising again. Worse, renters will have to come up with months of back rent as the end of Washington’s eviction moratorium nears and the extra $600 unemployment benefits from the federal CARES Act is set to run out.
“People have been very, very generous, but they’ve hit fatigue, and I understand that. You can’t keep giving,” she said, noting that almost no aid has yet come from off-island sources. She said she needs about $15,000 to provide rental assistance this month.
“I have to fight for every penny. Arm wrestle.”
Emmer said there will inevitably be more people in need. Many landlords are unable or unwilling to budge on rent, she said, but she believes if enough of them were to make their Airbnb and vacation rentals available long term, it could lead to lower rental rates and more housing in a community in short supply of it.
“We need affordable housing,” Emmer said.
Around the island, the English family, originally hailing from Ohio, is trying to make it work. They were uprooted in March and now live on a small boat docked in Portage they were given for temporary shelter where they plan to wait out the pandemic. After running out of gas in Colvos Passage and floating aimlessly for days, they were towed to the shores of Vashon by others living aboard their own watercraft who had similar stories like them. Most keep to themselves but county officials have cracked down in recent years as they are breaking the law and suspected of polluting the water.
David English described himself as tremendously fortunate. He said the homeless of Vashon’s live-aboard community will tow lost boats and their owners back to safety after they break anchorage during rough winds or run into motor problems. But rules around how long a boat can remain docked, and where, have made a situation that was already difficult at best all the more desperate.
The family was forced out of Dockton Marina by King County Sheriff’s Deputies who, English said, told him that boaters can only anchor there for 72 hours. Tying up at the main pier, targeted for the next phase of a major renovation commencing in August, is out of the question.
King County Parks, which owns the beleaguered dock, is only allowing single-day use of a limited area of the pier. The rest is strictly off-limits for safety reasons, and overnight mooring is not permitted at this time. Parks works with the sheriff’s office to help with enforcement, spokesperson Logan Harris said.
All King County Parks’ restroom facilities are currently closed due to COVID-19, including the showers at the marina, posing another challenge for the family.
According to state law, a vessel may be moored or anchored in the same location on state-owned aquatic lands for up to 30 days. Crucially, English said, that leaves no accessible place to reach the shore, making the task of obtaining supplies from the Vashon Food Bank or accessing the island’s Metro bus service to travel into town virtually impossible.
English said the family has felt welcomed by many on the island who have lent them help and that they are immensely grateful to them. For now, the family is taking it one day at a time on the water, where some, he said, continue to lead whatever lives they can.
“The interesting thing is, we have met several other people and realized, ‘we’re not the only ones.’ I guess that’s the biggest thing that I wanted to get across,” he said.