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New Leader, New Tactics For King County's Annual Count Of Homeless People

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ELAINE THOMPSON / AP
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Tents sit under a Seattle overpass.

King County's annual One Night Count of the Homeless is a massive undertaking that can send more than a thousand volunteers fanning out through Seattle and its suburbs.

For the first time in 37 years, the task of organizing it falls on a new group, and leaders say they plan to try new strategies aimed at reaching more people.

All Home, which oversees federal housing funds in King County, is taking over management of the census, scheduled for January 27.

The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness has organized the count for the past 36 years. Leaders of the nonprofit group said in a Nov. 17 message to supporters that the homelessness crisis is well-documented and their priority is now to advocate for more housing and services.

"Local governments have officially recognized that we are in a state of emergency," coalition executive director Alison Eisinger wrote. "Our Coalition's collective voice is urgently needed to secure resources for more shelter, services, and housing, and to speak up for and protect people who are homeless."

Eisinger could not be reached for comment Tuesday. All Home leaders said in a news release that they contracted with the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness to direct the count the past 10 years, but coalition leaders declined to participate in the 2017 count. 

All Home is working this year with a California firm, Applied Survey Research, to help oversee the count and gather more information about the backgrounds and needs of homeless people, said All Home director Mark Putnam.

He said organizers plan to hire people who are homeless or formerly homeless as guides at a rate of $15 per hour.

"We are really wanting to involve those with lived experience of homelessness in the count and really gain their understanding and knowledge" of how to locate and interact with people experiencing homelessness, Putnam said.

He also said volunteers will canvas all 398 census tracts in King County by vehicle or foot for several hours on the morning of January 27. In past years, he said, volunteers focused are areas where homeless people were known to gather. 

All Home leaders have renamed the operation "Count Us In." It was previously known as the "One Night Count."

The census helps government leaders take stock of a regional spike in homelessness that officials have declared an emergency. The past three counts have shown double-digit increases year-over-year in the number of people without shelter.

This past January's count found more than 10,000 homeless people in King County. Nearly half were living outdoors, while the rest were in shelters or housing programs. 

Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.
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