Amid the din of traffic and the shuffling crowds downtown, a single ringing note rolled down Cherry Street and through Fourth Avenue on Jan. 26. It rose, resonating between skyscrapers, then was followed by a second toll, then another. The gong rang 4,505 times right below the reflective glass windows of Seattle City Hall, where a small group gathered to raise awareness for the hundreds of people who are homeless and unsheltered in King County.
This event is an annual tradition for Real Change, not only to make noise about the unacceptable number of unsheltered homeless people in our city, but also to show the people what the number represents. In previous years, the gong rang once for every person found living outdoors in the annual One Night Count of unsheltered people. In 2015, Real Change staff, public officials, passersby and volunteers rang the gong 3,722 times. In 2016, they rang it 4,505 times.
This year All Home King County, formerly the Committee to End Homelessness, will not release the count’s number until May. Now titled Count Us In, All Home is working with a research firm to change how the number is calculated, so the gong tolled all day for those who are now not only unsheltered but uncounted.
“The One Night Count has always been a rallying point for people to go out during the night and see the conditions that people are living in and get a barometer of how we’re doing as a community on fighting unsheltered homelessness,” said Real Change Founding Director Tim Harris. “And that number that comes out of that count has been a political tool that gets used all year long because it’s usually an outrageous number.”
In October, the county released a request for proposals for the count. All Home selected the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) and Applied Survey Research (ASR) to jointly manage the count and data analysis. skcch decided to end its involvement in the count after that decision.
The importance of the count lay not only in its urgency, explained Alison Eisinger, executive director of SKCCH, but also in its effect on policy decisions championed by numerous organizations.
“The nature of this project is to get a real count of real people on the ground in our communities and there’s no reason to wait,” Eisinger said. “The intensity of the experience of counting is a pale shadow of the intensity of the experience that people live through.”
This is the first year the city has included a metrics organization in the count. A California-based firm, ASR states on its website that the company has worked with public and private agencies, federal and local governments and charitable foundations. Their methodology has been cited by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a best practice.
At the protest on Wednesday, a large cardboard calculator was propped up near the gong. It contained no number but six question marks. For Harris, a four-month wait is too long. Waiting means people will learn about the number in the warmer, milder spring weather, lessening the impact of people hearing about the number in harsher January. For Eisinger, although the state of homelessness in King County is a crisis, work will go on with or without the number.
“It’s not going to slow down. It changes it, but it doesn’t undermine our ability to take action,” Eisinger said. “Everyone can see that this is a crisis. If the number is three, four, five thousand, those numbers are too damn many people.”
The crowd had gotten larger by noon, when Councilmember Mike O’Brien came down to ring the gong. A security guard came along responding to a noise complaint. A volunteer hit the gong for the 2,000th time, filling the surrounding blocks with noise. It was followed shortly after by another toll.
“Numbers are hollow things,” said Harris. “But when you stop to think that each number represents a person, and that it takes all day to ring a gong to get to that number you start to get a better idea of how much suffering there is out there.”
New Math: King County embarks on new methods and calculations to tally the number of homeless people living outdoors