The weather was markedly better, the task depressingly similar.
Friday morning, roughly 10 of us gathered outside the Poodle Dog in Fife for Pierce County’s annual Point-in-Time homeless count. Like groups throughout the county, made up of professional outreach workers and volunteers — roughly 230 in total — we fanned out, clipboards in hand, tasked with trying to tally as many as possible people who are homeless.
Our responsibility: The approximately 6 square miles that make up Fife and the areas that directly surround it.
It was the second time I’d been invited to see the count in person. Last year, during an excursion that took me along the banks of the Puyallup River, and under a bridge connecting Puyallup and Sumner, a constant rain made being outside miserable, and keeping my notebook dry nearly impossible.
That count tallied 1,762 people experiencing homelessness throughout the county. That was an increase of 479 people from 2015, and the highest count since 2012.
Very bad news, in other words. Proof of a crisis.
But back to the weather, at least for a moment.
Last year, it was rainy and cold and nasty. Ironically, I feel like we found folks hunkered down more.
Tess Colby, manager of Pierce County Connections’ department of housing, homelessness and community development
This year, the annual count — which is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and tallies people staying in emergency shelters and transitional housing, as well as those living outdoors, without shelter — was greeted by sunshine and a bearable chill.
Better for participants like me, certainly. But perhaps a complicating factor for getting a realistic estimate of how many people in our community are forced to live outdoors.
While we won’t know for certain until the final numbers are crunched, anecdotal evidence piled up as we visited a string of what appeared to be active encampments with no one around.
Near a known encampment just off Pacific Highway East, for instance, we encountered plenty of tents, but only one resident, an 18-year-old kid sleeping in a makeshift shelter. Later, during a steep trek above the Hylebos Wildlife Trail, evidence of recent habitation was visible, but actual inhabitants were not.
When we finished for the day — an effort that also included part of our small team visiting the local library and food bank — roughly a dozen people had been counted. Our group’s leader, Patti Spaulding-Klewin, who works every day with the homeless through Catholic Community Services’ Family Housing Network, deemed the operation a success, while also observing that “next year we should probably be coming much earlier.”
“We should be starting at 4 or 4:30 in the morning, in order to be able to encounter folks who are leaving their campsites,” Spaulding-Klewin told me from the front seat of her car, her phone charging after spending the morning texting with other members of our group.
I told Tess Colby, manager of Pierce County Connections’ department of housing, homelessness and community development, of our experience in Fife. She said she’d heard similar reports from Gig Harbor.
“It was a pretty beautiful day today,” Colby said. “That will impact the count. But there’s no science to this. I cannot tell you whether it will impact it well, or poorly.”
Folks who weren’t counted at encampments, for instance, hopefully were accounted for elsewhere — grabbing a meal at a shelter, perhaps, or at one of the events around the county offering services. Colby expects to have final numbers no later than March.
From the day to day work, it feels like the volume never stops, the calls never stop about needing access to services. ... More people who’ve never experienced homelessness are coming into the system.
Patti Spaulding-Klewin, a supervisor with Catholic Community Services’ Family Housing Network
They will be only a guess at the extent of the problem. The count, which at best is a snapshot picture of the number of people experiencing homelessness in Pierce County, is always an undercount. Knowing this, Colby advises against making “granular,” year-over-year comparisons, and instead places weight on general trends, like increases or decreases in chronic homelessness over a five-year period.
“It’s not even science, it’s a census,” she continued.
Later, Colby added: “Our ability to identify where people are is really dependent on two things: being able to find them, and people wanting to be found.”
Back in Spaulding-Klewin’s front seat, I asked her whether, in her work, it feels like things are getting better or worse.
“From the day-to-day work, it feels like the volume never stops, the calls never stop about needing access to services,” she tells me. “More people who’ve never experienced homelessness are coming into the system.
“The need just continues to grow and grow and grow.”
Whatever the 2017 count reveals, this observation might be just as telling.