January 30, 2013
Vol: 20 No: 5

Director's Corner

Largest One Night Count numbers in history

by: Timothy Harris , Executive Director

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Last Friday, between 2 a.m and 5 a.m., 2,736 homeless people were found outside in King County after the shelters were full.  This, at the beginning of year eight of King County’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, is the largest One Night Count number we’ve seen yet.

Coming on the heels of recession and deep budget cuts to human services, this should surprise no one. The more than 5,000 units of affordable housing produced in King County since 2005 meet roughly one-tenth of existing need. According to the 2012 Communities Count Survey, another 45,500 units of affordable housing are required to meet the demand from households earning less than $20,000 annually.

For the past year, Real Change and our allies at SHARE, WHEEL and Nickelsville have pressured the Committee to End Homelessness in King County (CEHKC) to recognize the huge gap between emergency shelter supply and demand, and to support a broader range of services.  We have crashed the last four quarterly CEHKC Governing Board meetings to state the obvious: Without shelter, people die. 

Self-managed encampments such as Nickelsville, Tent City 3, Tent City 4 and Unity Village offer cost-effective community and safety to hundreds of people who are left out in the cold. Ballard’s pilot project to assist car campers offers unassisted homeless people an alternative to the harmful harassment those surviving in their cars are subject to. These are valuable, cost-effective efforts that deserve our support.

In response to our organizing, CEHKC directed the city-led Single Adult Shelter Task Force to examine how King County might better meet the needs of unsheltered homeless people. The resulting report — The Role of Shelter in Ending Homelessness — is a disappointment. 

There are two primary recommendations: Shelter outside of Seattle should be increased, and more should be done to get long-term homeless shelter residents into housing. Let’s take these one at a time.

This year’s One Night Count found more than 700 unsheltered people outside of city limits.  And yet, the report calls for the addition of a mere 130 beds, less than 5 percent of this year’s total count of unsheltered homeless. While we understand that Seattle provides 92 percent of existing shelters and that other cities need to do more, the proposed expansion is pathetically inadequate to the need.

Next, the report finds that 645 people have been in emergency shelter for 180 days or more. This represents 26 percent of homeless people in shelter.  Efforts to move people from shelter to housing have mostly focused on heavy users of emergency and police services.  The more inexpensive homeless — those who are merely older, disabled and largely unemployable — have been mostly left to languish. 

If we can get this 26 percent into housing, the report says, we’d have more capacity to help others in shelter move on more quickly, and more of the currently unsheltered would be served. 

This is hardly a new idea. Without significant new resources from the city, county and state, these are only words.

If capacity existed to move the long-term but otherwise unproblematic homeless into housing, we’d have done it.  Meanwhile, new homeless people are pouring in through the front door of the shelter system at the rate of about 4,000 annually, while the back door that leads to housing with services is barely ajar.

We asked the Committee to End Homelessness to support homeless people who have organized, in the face of overwhelming system failure and neglect, to meet their own needs.  This report falls short and is silent on help for tent cities and car campers. That silence will not be reciprocated.

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