This image illustrates urban homeless living in campers. The official One Night Count of homeless in King County Jan. 27 which included West Seattle and White Center included car and RV campers. Problem is, they are often well-hidden and not as loudly painted as these, particularly cars. Also, the volunteer counters are told not to knock on their doors to see how many live inside.

Homeless One Night Count "utterly approximate"

Volunteers officially count KC homeless on Jan. 27

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD mandates an annual one night count called "Opening Doors" to determine the numbers of homeless people in and around urban areas, including King County. Federal grants are distributed on the basis of the numbers. More than 3,000 communities report numbers of homeless individuals, families and veterans on one single night in January.

HUD's website analyzing the Count said nationally, homelessness declined 2.1 percent compared to the prior year's count, or 636,017 individuals. In King County, the Count was held between midnight and 5:00 a.m. on Jan. 27. It is known as the One Night Count, coordinated by Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, or SKCCH. Over 800 volunteers found 2,442 people surviving outside without shelter and another 6,382 people staying in shelters and transitional housing programs, an increase of about 3 percent.

According to Alison Eisinger, Dir., SKCCH, that organization's assessment is the largest independently-organized count in the country. Their website states that once the Count is concluded many volunteers have a powerful desire to take the next step, making sure that our communities have enough housing and supportive services for people who are homeless. SKCCH plans to host two workshops to engage volunteers "Beyond the One Night Count" on Saturday, February 11.

Compass Housing Alliance in Pioneer Square were headquarters for the Seattle count teams.

WHITE CENTER COUNT

In King County, the counts for individual cities, including Seattle, Federal Way, Kent, Auburn and others are not broken down into neighborhoods, so there is no data on West Seattle specifically. However, 55 homeless individuals were counted in White Center, 29 living in vehicles. All involved understand such information gathering involves guess work, and many conclude that these numbers are low estimates.

Highland Park resident, veteran and community activist Dorsol Plants was one of a team of four volunteers assigned to White Center. He seems to see beyond the statistical data of homelessness.

"It's no different than being me in Bagdad," said Plants, 27, who served in two tours of duty in Iraq in the U.S. Army. "Going to sleep outside is not a nice thing. It's a cold thing. It's a wet thing. It's a miserable thing. And it's a very, very dangerous thing, but you have to do it, and you have to do it every day."

He acknowledged that the count of 55 people is probably low.

"We should do the Count in the spring, when more homeless are visible," he said. "One advantage to having the One Night Count in January is that this puts the white collar volunteers out on the street at hours when they would not ordinarily be outside. Even for me with the experiences I have had it is a daunting thing to find homeless people sleeping at 4 or 5:00 a.m., the coldest time of the night, just before the sun begins to rise.

"We have a notepad and one of our primary goals is to not disturb anybody sleeping, to be safe and not intrusive," said Plants, a former Compass employee. "We're looking for sleeping bags, people wrapped up in cardboard, which is unfortunately really popular option during winter, lean-to (tents), and cars and RV's that appear to be occupied. The problem with counting is that you're looking for people who basically have to survive by not being seen. Sometimes people run off if they see us coming. It's a judgement call whether or not to count them.

"Unfortunately, in King County the homeless have a lot to fear from other people walking around at night, and so they hide," he said. "For example, with homeless veterans we are talking about a population dealing with at the very least the minimal amount of post traumatic stress and so there is always that initial fear and paranoia of being confronted at night. Homeless are beaten by frat boys being drunk and terrible, and some people leaving bars at night throw bottles and cans at them. Also, cops arrive and may want to make sure they never come back, and push them around.

"The combination of legitimate and illegitimate calls from the public put police in a difficult situation that I don't envy," said Plants. "You have a resident calling, sometimes ungraciously, about a stranger outside. Maybe they have a four year-old, and there is a drunk man passed out on their front lawn. The police have to 'do something'."

Homeless Car & RV Camping

"The Count has a standard policy with car camping," Plants explained. "It is unsafe to approach an occupied vehicle. People will protect their families. And that is true with people who have an actual home, or with what most people don't consider a home, but actually is, like their vehicle. We were instructed not to shine flashlights in their windows. If we could see through the windows we'd count who we could see. If we could not, we would count two people. We found an RV half parked in the driveway, half on the street. Is it somebody who is homeless or is it somebody's grandmother not staying inside the house? Hard to say. An RV is likely to be a four-person family."

Timothy Harris, Founder, Real Change

Timothy Harris is Founder and Executive Director of Real Change, Seattle's weekly street newspaper sold by the poor, many of whom are homeless. He is less sympathetic than Plants regarding the methods, and results, of the One Night Count information.

"There is no way you are going to get an accurate count," he said. "Anyone who goes out on the count has a feel for how utterly approximate it is. At least the methodology is consistent from year to year. The volunteers counting are told not to go into the woods and other dangerous areas and not to take chances and I think that is right. You don't want people risking life and limb for some bullsh** number, so it's not going to give you an accurate number. The whole point of sleeping outside is not to be seen. People are hiding."

Real Change has a team of volunteers that help count.

"Real Change has been doing the same area for six years, the Gaslight Park area, and we get to know it," he said. "You sort of see the hiding places.

"The federal government sponsors the Count," he said. "The interest of the federal government is to show that they are making progress. Consistently the definitions (of who are homeless) get narrower. What you see is this combination on focusing on the visible, chronic homelessness, rather than families who are more hidden, and using other methods to deflate the numbers, like scheduling it on statistically the coldest week of the year. I mean, what the hell is that? If they wanted something more accurate they'd shoot for something in the middle, in fall or spring.

"I think they want to be able to produce some sort of evidence that shows their strategy to decrease homelessness is working," he added. "The federal government is poorly suited as a player to challenge systemic inequality. They are on the horns of a dilemma. They can't 'ignore' homelessness. It would appear callous and uncaring. But they can't do anything about homelessness either because to really solve homelessness you'd get into all those vexing wage, labor, power relationship questions that have produced 40 years of inequality, so they are going to do their best to look like they are doing something."

Homeless Families & Car Camping

"I think the One Night Count gets to single and chronic homelessness, while family homelessness is much more invisible," Harris said. "They are much more likely to be holed up somewhere, or staying at a poverty hotel. Those things are horrible. People pay more to live in those but it is because those have a weekly rate. People can come up with $200 or $300 at a time but can't come up with $1,500 to rent an apartment so they get trapped and just keep feeding it.

"We are seeing a rise in car camping and it is harder to see because they are being dispersed," Harris said. "Signs saying 'No Parking 2am to 5am' have gone up in a lot of parts of the city. The only reason for this is to discourage car camping. These restrictions do not dissuade anybody from living in their car. They just drive it underground. They are working poor, and the lower rungs of the middle class who have been harder hit with the depression. They don't even really identify as being homeless, because being homeless has all this stigma that goes with it. They see their car as being their home.

"I heard a good radio program on car camping with Ross Reynolds (on KUOW)," Harris said. "A caller said he was living in his car during the One Night Count. He saw people with the clipboards walk right by and not notice him because he had a late model car. For each car being lived in there are probably at least two cars that they don't even see."

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