This year marks the first time since at least 1980 that Seattle has stopped living outside. The homeless census, held in January each year, provides an overview of the number of people living on the streets and in emergency shelters in King County.
The federal government requires that every county in the US count every two years, but King County has done so every year since that mandate.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development granted King County permission not to take the census due to concerns about exposure to volunteers and those exposed to the coronavirus.
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“We always put a team together,” said Colleen Echohawk, who runs a service center for homeless Indians in Pioneer Square called the Chief Seattle Club and is the co-chair of the board, who voted for a federal waiver. “There is no way I can ask a team to go there in the middle of the night … with a lot of undiagnosed COVID in our community.”
Typically each year, volunteers across the country meet in the earliest hours of the morning, pile up in cars, and fan out in city centers, neighborhoods, and parks to count people in tents, vehicles, or abandoned buildings.
Officials acknowledge that counting people who live outside, in cars, or other places unsuitable for human habitation is a flawed way of counting, but it is the only national census in the country and provides data relevant to Allocation of funds to be used at all levels of government.
It is unclear how much COVID-19 has spread in unprotected camps with few tests done outside. However, December was the worst month yet for the spread of COVID in homeless shelters, food programs and residential facilities. Hundreds of cases have been reported.
Outdoor camps in Seattle seem to have spiked over the past year as emergency shelters have been forced to shrink in size and evacuate people. The Seattle / King County Coalition for Homelessness estimates that between January and July 2020 The county lost at least 400 beds.
But without a count, the region likely won’t have a good idea of how much outdoor camps have grown by mid-2022. This is “unfortunate,” said Dr. Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania researcher, because it means officials have little idea whether the camps have grown because of homeless people or people fearful of being left in shelters.
“We need to know if there is a real increase or if we are just seeing the shifting effect of the COVID crisis in the shelters.” Said Culhane. “It’s so important to have some kind of barometer for what’s going on.”
Some of Culhane’s colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania published guidelines for doing a safe census, including counting over several days, last week after King County’s waiver received. They recommended using professional outreach workers instead of volunteers and entering numbers into a mobile app rather than doing paper surveys as the King County enumerators had done last year.
However, according to Steve Berg, vice president of politics for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which the federal government hires on behalf of shelters and nonprofits, it is up to each county and city to decide whether or not the count is best for them the country and distributes the researcher’s guidance to its partners across the country.
“We don’t want anyone in the homeless world to be forced to do so,” said Berg. “It’s unfortunate because I think we have some real problems this year. One of them is there are too many people on the street and I think many places have gotten worse and we won’t be able to know that for sure. “
Organizing such a census has always been a huge effort, said Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, which has operated for decades and maintains the census through 2016.
“We have to realize that six or seven thousand people are outside after the shelters are full. Every night, ”said Eisinger. That doesn’t negate the good work that is done in shelters. It painfully, truthfully tells us, every damn January, here is the gap between what we do and what people need. “
The district government has taken over the past three years and its staff will instead focus on responding to the recent surge in cases, a district spokesperson Sherry Hamilton said in an email. A number of people in shelters and hotels will still appear, but as shelters shrink this will be far from accurate.
“The number of homeless people we are listing for 2021 will likely have an asterisk next to it in the years to come,” said Berg.