New County Data Reframes the Scale of the Homelessness Crisis

By Erica C. Barnett

A new report from King County’s Department of Community and Human Services that uses new methodology for counting the region’s homeless population estimates that about 40,300 people were homeless in King County in 2020, a decline from around 45,000 the previous year. The estimate comes from several data sources and includes people whose interactions with the homelessness “system” are not captured in the widely used Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), a tracking system used by most homeless service providers in the region.

Overall, the “new” data includes information about every person who reported being homeless to an agency participating in HMIS, such as a homeless shelter or day center, in a given year, plus every person who reported they were homeless through King County’s behavioral health system, the Health Care for the Homeless Network, and other service providers that do not participate in HMIS. Including information about people who are outside the traditional homelessness system, such as those who report being homeless to a behavioral health care provider but don’t participate in other homeless services, added about 7,300 people to the data. This group, according to the report, includes people with high behavioral health needs who are more likely to experience barriers to accessing services or who access health care through mobile clinics or in areas where fewer homeless services are available.

The figure reported Thursday is more than three times greater than the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people counted during the most recent Point In Time count—a labor-intensive physical count that the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority has opted not to perform this year. As we reported last month, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a count of the sheltered population every year, and an unsheltered count every two years; by opting out, the authority risks losing points on its federal funding application next year.

The figure reported Thursday is more than three times greater than the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people counted during the most recent Point In Time count—a labor-intensive physical count that the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority has opted not to perform this year.

Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which coordinated the One Night Count for 37 years before the county took it over in 2016, said the Coalition has always known the count represented a dramatic undercount of the region’s homeless population.

“I think roughly knowing the number of people [experiencing homelessness] is important, but we already have a pretty solid sense of how much more deeply affordable housing we need across King County, and we know that what people without homes need is homes,” Eisinger said. “For some people, maybe this data is illuminating, and that’s not bad. I just don’t quite see this as a game changer.”

Marc Dones, CEO of the new regional homelessness authority, said they believe the actual number of people experiencing homelessness may be 10,000 higher than the numbers released Thursday, once people who become homeless when they’re discharged from jails, hospitals, foster care, and other systems that provide tenuous temporary housing are factored in.

Dones said the numbers show the need for a “seismic shift” in the way the region responds to homelessness. “To say that between 40,000 and 45,000 is now the floor means that we have to reevaluate almost every single system for how does it respond to that volume of people,” they said. Using the KCRHA’s current budget, Dones continued, they would be able to spend $10 a day on every person experiencing homelessness in the county—a trivial figure that amounts to “milk money,” they said.

“We need to start having a conversation in this community that is rooted in the data, that is clear about the benefit of good data, and rather than being disheartened by this number seeing, it as a real opportunity,” Dones said. “What does it mean to invest, to coordinate, to work at the scale that we are called to work at?”

2 thoughts on “New County Data Reframes the Scale of the Homelessness Crisis”

  1. Just for reference, Lynnwood, Issaquah, and Bremerton each have about 40,000 people [https://worldpopulationreview.com/states/cities/washington]. King County has a shadow city of homeless people that size living in the cracks of our “liberal/progressive” city/county. I know the Times likes to trumpet Seattle as a progressive city for its own purposes but it doesn’t do much for the paper’s credibility.

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