Last week, Real Change was happy to have Mark Putnam, the head of King County’s All Home, as a guest at our monthly board meeting.
Truth be told, we’ve been less than thrilled with All Home — the lead coordinator of homeless services in Seattle/King County — since the decision was made to hold the results of January’s annual count of unsheltered people until late-May.
We annoyed City Hall in January the day after the numberless count by banging a gong until the 2016 number, 4,552, was finally reached. That takes about six hours. At some point, we interrupted our meditation on human suffering to deliver a giant calculator to the seventh floor.
Addition is hard. We know. We’re here to help. Unsurprisingly, our call for the immediate release of count results went unheeded.
The One Night Count, which was renamed “Count Us In” this year, found 5,485 people unsheltered in King County on a single night in late January, 22 percent more than the 2016 results. The overall number of homeless people in King County increased by 9 percent.
The homeless people who have been counted out year after year, as evidenced by the 45 percent increase in unsheltered homelessness since 2015, are no doubt reassured by the rebrand.
It always feels a little unfair to put the failures of the housing market on the slim shoulders of Mark Putnam. He is, like Sam Lowry in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” “a good man in a tight corner,” and controls the vagaries of our overheated housing market like I control the weather. Which is to say, not at all.
But I asked the question anyway. Count results show that on Jan. 27, 2017, 1,486 people were counted on the street; 138 were found in abandoned buildings; 2,314 were counted in cars; and 1,547 people were counted in tents.
How did the results of the count inform policy priorities? The question seemed to catch Putnam off guard. Has no one asked this before?
Is the count just a highly visible but ultimately empty exercise to satisfy federal requirements? Or, is it a tool to help formulate an adequate policy response?
Apparently, it is mostly the former.
Among the 11,643 homeless people that night, 47 percent were unsheltered. All Home counted 20 percent more people car camping that night than the previous year. Given those numbers, one might expect a commensurate increase in emergency shelter options, or at least a robust outreach program to assist car campers in finding housing.
Instead, there has been a radical increase in the towing and confiscation of illegally parked vehicles, and more or less daily sweeps of homeless encampments. The number and frequency of homeless sweeps have roughly tripled over that of previous administrations.
The most impactful action so far to reduce next year’s unsheltered count was to reclassify those living in sanctioned encampments as residing in emergency shelter.
If you’re living in a tent, shitting in a Honey Bucket and struggling to keep your things dry in the rain, you are no longer unsheltered. Congratulations. You are on the “pathway” to your homelessness being “brief, rare and one-time.”
This is, of course, useless legerdemain. Synonyms include trickery, cunning, artifice, deceit and deception. It is, like the one-night count, rebrand itself, calculated to reassure us of progress while the homeless crisis steadily deepens and more people die year after year.
Without shelter, people die. This isn’t just a hyperbolic slogan to shame policymakers into acting. It is reality. Of the 68 homeless people who have died so far in King County this year, 36 died outside or as a result of violence.
Until recently, the average age of homeless death in King County mirrored the national average: 47 years old. This year, the average age of homeless death in King County dropped to 45.
Now there’s a metric. A true indicator of suffering.
We all like to talk about our successes, but in matters of life and one-night counts, we usually have more to learn from our failures. That is, of course, should we care to look.
Tim Harris is the founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded the Spare Change homeless newspaper in Boston in 1992 while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
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