Homelessness in Seattle: Three reasons a point in time count is important

By United Way of King County, on February 11, 2020 | In Fighting Homelessness, Volunteering

Gordon McHenry, Jr. is CEO and President of United Way of King County. Gordon grew up in Seattle and is an advocate for social and economic equity.

I was out with hundreds of other volunteers for Count Us In last month. This annual point in time count takes place every January—and is an effort to collect data on the needs of people experiencing homelessness in King County.

The count is both critical to our work—and a sobering experience. January was one of the soggiest on record—and as we canvassed the area, the rain was ‘sideways’ and winds were blustery. Being without a safe space is difficult to imagine, but this type of weather underscores for me how unacceptable homelessness is; we must and can do better.

Point-in-time counts happen all across the country. Being part of our local effort is a good reminder that:

  • Being seen matters. We hear all the time that people don’t feel seen. Whether they’ve been living on the street for months and can go all day without someone making eye contact—or they’re holding down a full-time job and hiding the fact that they’re living in their car, showering at their gym—people feel unseen. Like they don’t matter.

    Count Us In is not unlike the upcoming Census—and is key to being seen. Knowing the state of our community allows us to advocate for funds, inform policy and invest resources in solutions that work.
  • We’re talking about people. Numbers are important—and the results will come out in Spring, but it’s imperative that we acknowledge we are talking about people, not statistics.

    These are our neighbors. The numbers all have individual stories behind them. Like Roxanne, the mom I met last week, living in her car with her twin daughters because it is safer than their previous home. Martin, who was reeling financially from the costs of his son’s unexpected passing, trying to stay in his apartment and avoid the streets.
  • We are seeing success. Encountering just one family who is unsheltered is difficult; but we shouldn’t lose sight of all the good that is happening.

    Homeless Prevention. In the first nine months of our eviction prevention program, 816 families have been able to stay in their homes. We know that each month hundreds of families are at risk for eviction because of everyday reasons like a lost job, medical emergency, or a death in the family. The median amount of rent owed to the landlord is just $1,237.  Preventing homelessness reduces trauma and costs less than services used for a family that have been forced out of their home.

Helping people move off the street. Sometimes the only thing between someone being housed and someone being homeless is not having enough money for a security deposit or needing an eviction removed from their record. Through Streets to Home,we partner with outreach workers and provide flexible funds to people who can benefit from this one-time help and sustain on their own. Last year, we helped more than 2,200 people move off the streets.

Addressing the homelessness crisis requires compassion, rigor and perseverance. I’m thankful to the nearly 600 people who made Count Us In possible.


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