File photo by Patrick Robinson from 2011 under Spokane St. bridge.

Homeless count finds 51 without shelter in White Center, 2736 countywide

A small army of volunteers, guided by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, spread throughout the county one night each January in an attempt to account for every person with no option but to sleep on the streets.

This year’s count, which took place on Jan. 25, sent over 900 volunteers out in the early morning hours. They tallied a total of 2736 men, women and children living without shelter across King County. They “were found sleeping on sidewalks, under bridges, in their cars, on public transit, and in temporary structures and makeshift campsites” the coalition explained in their One Night Count summary.

The total is 142 more homeless than last year’s count.

The count clumps Seattle into a single category (with 1989), so we can’t say how many homeless were found in West Seattle, but the coalition does a specific count for White Center, the unincorporated land between Seattle and Burien with an estimated population around 17,000.

51 people were counted living without shelter in White Center. 31 of them were living in their vehicles, 16 were found near structures, two were found in doorways, and two homeless citizens were “walking around” that night, according to survey results.

The tally is a slight dip from the 2012 count, where 55 homeless were accounted for. Later in the year, a survey of people staying in shelters on that night will also be compiled, making for a more complete picture.

A first-person perspective
White Center Storefront Deputy BJ Myers with the King County Sheriff’s Office spends a good portion of his workweek simply walking around the unincorporated area and interacting with the homeless population – mostly to ensure their safety, and at times keeping them in line with the law (those two can coexist).

Myers took part in the One Night Count this year and explained how the process works, along with his take on the results.

“It’s worth mentioning that the count has some built in estimation; they count at night when the homeless population is less mobile and easier to count, but since it’s nighttime they don’t wake any one, so estimations are made as to how many people are likely to be in tents, cars, and shelters,” he wrote in an email. “They have consistent rules as to how many people to tally for cars and shelters, but you have to take the numbers with a measure of estimation. I think 50 homeless people in unsheltered places in White Center is descriptive of what I see on a day to day basis.”

Myers said a “complicating variable” in counting the true population in White Center may be skewed by the number of homeless spending nights in abandoned and foreclosed homes.

“These folks aren’t counted as part of this count, since they have shelter at night. However, from time to time these same people may stay in cars or tents when the abandoned houses become unlivable, due to law enforcement attention, new owners, cleanliness, etc.”

That being said, Myers added the count “is useful in describing where homeless populations are found,” during this time of year (primarily in abandoned vehicles during the winter months). He said a summertime count would be interesting to see how population numbers and locations change from season to season.

“Some of the greenbelts in White Center, where dozens of people were living six months ago, were quite vacant during the count. I think a combination of requests by King County and WSDOT (Washington State Dept. of Transportation) to vacate these areas, and recent heavy rains drove people to sturdier shelters.”

Action out of a number
The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness wrote that coming up with this “big, sad number … is just the beginning.”

The group educates others in becoming advocates for the homeless with workshops, and lobbies state lawmakers to fund and protect housing and homeless programs. As a non-profit, they also take donations to carry on.

The One Night Count is partially funded by the King County Committee to End Homelessness, as part of their 10-Year Plan to eradicate the problem. That plan, adopted in 2005, has a stated goal of working “to ensure alignment and coordination among all the entities in our community that are engaged in meeting the needs (of) the homeless, and (building) on local and national best practices for resolving homelessness.”

With three years to go in a 10-year plan, it’s clear the battle wages on. Sometimes, as Myers explained, it is the seemingly simple steps that hinder connecting our most vulnerable with stable housing.

“I have been surprised at how often paperwork acts as a barrier to services,” he said. “I know there are all kinds of agencies with all kinds of programs that could be useful to someone trying to find support or shelter, but I often hear that someone can’t get help because they don’t have proper identification or no access to their birth certificate or no address where they can reliably get correspondence.

“Things that I would consider to be small problems, but they are just enough of a barrier to keep someone from changing their situation.”

We encourage our readers to comment. No registration is required. We ask that you keep your comments free of profanity and keep them civil. They are moderated and objectionable comments will be removed.