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News / Northwest

King County reports largest number of homeless people ever

More than 16,000 people were reported to be experiencing homelessness on a given day in 2024 Point-in-Time Count

By Anna Patrick, The Seattle Times
Published: May 16, 2024, 5:52pm

SEATTLE — More than 16,000 people were reported to be experiencing homelessness on a given day in King County in the 2024 Point-in-Time Count.

That is the largest number ever reported in Seattle and King County using the biennial snapshot, which is required by the federal government. While the methods of counting people has changed slightly between years, this record high is still considered an undercount.

The number marks a 23 percent increase in homelessness from 2022, the last time the count was conducted. The number of people living outdoors, in vehicles or other places unfit for human habitation, in particular, has dramatically increased, from 7,685 people in 2022 to 9,810 this year — a 27.7 percent increase.

Sheltered homelessness also increased by 15.7 percent, growing to 6,575 people.

The dramatic increase follows years of attempts to reduce the visibility of the issue downtown, which showed how uniquely difficult it is to remove tents and symptoms of homelessness in that area.

Meanwhile, Seattle has asked the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which oversees homelessness strategy and operations, to cut how much money it asks for next year. The current proposed budget would eliminate hundreds of shelter beds, among other services, which are often used to move people from the street and get them ready for permanent housing.

“We understand the magnitude of this issue is significant,” said Callie Craighead, spokesperson for Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell.

Other officials pointed upstream to say why the count is increasing.

This year-after-year increase in homelessness shows “the number of people experiencing homelessness is directly tied to a lack of housing options in our region, and it’s only increasing,” according to Kristin Elia, spokesperson for King County Executive Dow Constantine.

“The system is serving more people with more efficiency, but the displacement into homelessness is growing at a faster pace than the response system,” said Darrell Powell, interim CEO for the Regional Homelessness Authority. “Simply put, there’s a need for more resources.”

According to this year’s count, homelessness continues to disproportionately affect communities of color, especially Black residents, who make up 19 percent of King County’s homeless population and just 7 percent the county’s population, according to the 2020 U.S. census. People who identify as American Indian, Alaskan Native or Indigenous were reported this year to make up 7 percent of the county’s homeless population, while only representing 1 percent of the county population.

However, Derrick Belgarde, executive director of Chief Seattle Club, a nonprofit serving Native people experiencing homelessness, said the count’s methodology doesn’t accurately reflect the number of Native people who are homeless in King County. Belgarde said in a written statement Thursday that this is the second time he has raised this concern.

The Regional Homelessness Authority is atypical in how it conducts the unsheltered count. For the last two counts since it took over the data collection, the authority has used a methodology known as respondent-driven sampling.

This new method requires people to visit centralized locations. But Belgarde said some Native people do not engage in non-Native spaces due to distrust and negative past experiences.

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He said Native organizations, such as Chief Seattle Club, need to be included to ensure future counts are more accurate.

“These inaccurate numbers endanger critical funding that we rely upon to house and shelter our Native relatives,” Belgarde said in the statement. “It creates a dangerous situation that leaves our already underfunded organizations at risk of losing resources.”

Before the authority became involved with the count, volunteers used to span out across the county during one day in January to use their eyes and ears to knock on RVs and greet tent dwellers to try to count as many people as they could find living outside.

For years, the federal Point-in-Time Count has been criticized by many for its inaccuracy, with the key complaint being that there’s no way people will be able to find and count everyone living outside on a given day — and that it just reflects a one-day snapshot rather than showing a population over time.

Meghan Henry, who directed last year’s federal Point-in-Time Count report for the firm Abt Global, told The Seattle Times in December that Point-in-Time data is “very likely an ‘at least’ amount.”

“I don’t think anyone should be surprised, and I hope everyone takes this year’s data to heart because clearly the need is growing and already we are not responding adequately to the needs of people in our community,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.

Even though the snapshot is rising significantly compared with years past, the county and state have other methods for counting that estimate the region’s homelessness crisis to be much higher.

For example, the authority prefers to cite calculations by the Washington State Department of Commerce showing that 53,000 people experienced homelessness at some point in 2022.

Additionally, the Regional Homelessness Authority has been criticized for changing its method of counting.

Some experts say switching methods of counting, or making slight changes to them, can make year-over-year fluctuations difficult to compare, according to previous reporting by The Seattle Times.

Chief Seattle Club argued that the count in 2022 didn’t adequately reach Native people. And some advocates said people living in their cars were undercounted.