The counting began early last Friday.
When I arrived at 8:30 a.m. at the New Hope Resource Center in Puyallup, a flu shot clinic had already been set up out front. Inside, the day center and homelessness resources hub was bustling.
It was essentially standing room only, a mix of the New Hope Resource Center’s regular clientele and busy volunteers. The level of activity was partially due to the drenching rain that had been coming down for hours, and partially a result of the day’s important endeavor. Later, a local Boy Scout troop delivered lunch.
Pierce County’s annual Point-In-Time homeless count – a yearly undertaking that helps the county and its many service-providers identify trends in homelessness.
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Similar counts took place across the country. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a count of people staying in emergency shelters and transitional housing, as well as a count of unsheltered individuals. While these counts are mandated by the federal government, and federal funding decisions are made at least partially based on the results, they’re carried out locally.
The goal: Come as close as possible to quantifying how many people are homeless in Pierce County.
It’s no easy task, and there’s a general understanding that, when it comes to counting unsheltered individuals, whatever the final tally shows, that number will represent a fraction of the actual crisis on the streets.
Last year, 1,283 individuals were counted as homeless in Pierce County, with 942 staying in area shelters and 341 living without shelter. According to the county, there’s been a 29 percent decrease in total homelessness since 2010, but a 26 percent increase in chronic homelessness.
New Hope Resource Center was one of six physical locations across the county, aside from shelters, where volunteers and social service providers gathered to get to work. They survey anyone willing to consent to being counted, collecting an array of data in the process, from where participants slept the night before to information about age, race, ethnicity and disabilities. The survey also includes questions about the circumstances that led people to become homeless.
In many ways, the part of the Point-in-Time count that takes place at locations like the New Hope Resource Center in Puyallup is the easy part.
What’s far more difficult is getting an accurate read on how many individuals are living outside, without shelter, under county freeway overpasses, in our woods, or generally out of sight.
To get a better understanding, I was led to a location along the banks of the Puyallup River, where four worn-looking tents were tucked under a bridge connecting Puyallup and Sumner.
If more people understood that the higher our counts are, the more funding that might bring to our community, I think they would be more willing. But there’s so much apprehension and fear because of their traumatic experiences of the past, it’s not worth it.
Greater Lakes Mental Health PATH team member Nicole Mims
Accompanied by Darin Borden from New Hope Resource Center and Paula Anderson, chairwoman of the Puyallup Homeless Coalition, seven homeless individuals eventually emerge, looking cold but at least dry. Each knows Borden and Anderson from previous encounters, and each is asked if they’d like to participate in this year’s count.
At this location at least, they all agree. The survey takes about five minutes. By the time it is done, seven people – including a recent high school graduate wearing house slippers in the sand – will go down on the official tally as four households.
“It’s just regular random questions. It wasn’t nothing,” one of the anonymous participants tells me after finishing.
But not everyone is so willing to be counted, even anonymously, and therein lies just one of the challenges in Pierce County.
In order to be included in what will eventually become the only way we have of determining the number of unsheltered people living on the street this year, Pierce County requires that participants consent.
“It really depends on how it’s explained to them,” Anderson explains of coaxing participation. “You want to tell them, ‘Hey, it’s an anonymous survey.’ Those are the first things you want to put out there.”
That consent requirement has its reasons: it adds a level of humanity, and allows for the collection of valuable demographic data that’s part of the survey.
The downside, quite frankly, of doing a consensual census, is that we do get a lower number, and we know that it both affects what we think we know about homelessness, and it could potentially affect funding.
Tess Colby, division manager within the Pierce County Community Connections department
But it also has obvious limitations. Parents are notoriously hesitant to participate, fearing that – even with an anonymous survey – taking part might mean losing their children. And there are other reasons people decline. “Some people have warrants, you know, or have felonies on their record that they’re not willing to talk about. Or they’ve just had bad experiences with the law,” Anderson says.
“If more people understood that the higher our counts are, the more funding that might bring to our community, I think they would be more willing,” Nicole Mims, a member of the Greater Lakes Mental Health outreach team, tells me. “But there’s so much apprehension and fear because of their traumatic experiences of the past, it’s not worth it.”
The most populous county in the state, with the largest number of homeless people, takes a different approach.
In King County, the annual count of unsheltered individuals took place early Friday morning, between 2 and 5 a.m. There, volunteers fanned out and conducted what essentially amounts to a headcount, tallying suspected homeless individuals in far quicker fashion while also relying on certain assumptions. Tents and cars, for instance, are counted as two people – based on the average.
The upshot is a number probably closer to the reality, and quicker results. By Friday mid-morning we knew King County had more than 4,500 people sleeping outside. In Pierce County, we won’t know the results of this year’s count until at least April – a delay that’s due to the pile of paperwork generated and the labor intensive process of hand screening for duplicate surveys.
“I think (the King County method) is a pretty accurate way of getting an unduplicated count,” says Mark Putnam, director of All Home, the agency formerly known as the Committee to End Homelessness in King County. However, Putnam also acknowledges, “Any of these counts is likely to be an undercount.”
We just feel like the information that we get, and the validity, our ability to trust the data that we’re getting, is just better. And it makes people feel like they matter if you engage them.
Tess Colby, division manager within the Pierce County Community Connections department
According to Tess Colby, division manager within the Pierce County Community Connections department, the value in Pierce County’s approach is in the data collected while conducting the count. She says outreach workers “know where the vast majority of encampments are,” and they’re able to not just count people, but gather information that might one day help get them off the street.
“Part of it is we think it’s important to engage, and I really think the consent part of this is important,” Colby says. “Yes, we as the county are pragmatic – we know that we need to count as many people as we can because it impacts the kind of funding that we get. On a really sort of twisted level, the more homeless folks we have, the more likely we are to attract funds.
“We just feel like the information that we get, and the validity, our ability to trust the data that we’re getting, is just better,” she continues. “And it makes people feel like they matter if you engage them.”
Interestingly, Putnam tells me that as soon as next year King County may look to move toward a counting method that allows for the collection of more data. “There’s some interest in using this opportunity of doing a count to also gather information about the unsheltered population,” he says, “including finding out why they’re homeless.”
Confirmation that Pierce County’s dedication to engagement during the counting process can have the desired effect came during a stop Friday along the Puyallup River. Here, outreach workers from Greater Lakes encountered 55-year-old Mary Bush, homeless for the last three years and living in an a makeshift shelter just feet from where cars speed by on River Road.
I care about people. This is the first time I’ve ever been homeless in my entire life. And we get judged. We get looked at. It’s horrible. ... I’m praying (being counted) will help.
Mary Bush, 55-year-old homeless woman living along the Puyallup River
I ask her why she agreed to be counted.
“I care about people. This is the first time I’ve ever been homeless in my entire life,” she tells me, fighting back tears. “And we get judged. We get looked at. It’s horrible. “
“I’m praying (being counted) will help.”