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What A New Survey Tells Us About Pierce County's Homeless Population


Pierce County's social services seem to be keeping pace with a growing homelessness problem, but they aren’t making headway.

That’s one conclusion from the county’s annual census of homeless people, the results of which were released this week. 

Tess Colby, who oversees Pierce County’s homelessness programs, said the county is getting better at moving people into housing.  

But at the same time, a swelling population and rising rents in places like Tacoma are driving more people into homelessness. 

"People with economic means will find housing, and that will naturally push folks who are more economically fragile out of housing," Colby said.

And, so, the county appears to be breaking even.

Volunteers and staff counted more than 1,300 homeless people across Pierce County one night in January. That's a drop of more than 400 people since last year's count. 

But this common method of taking a one-night snapshot of the homeless population -- known as a "point-in-time" count -- is prone to wild fluctuations year-to-year, due to factors like the weather.

Colby says it's likely something like that is at play in this year's drop. For instance, last year's count unfolded on a bitterly cold night, and there were more shelter beds available.

Such factors could lead to more being captured in the census. 

"The year-on-year comparisons are always really hard," she said.

Colby said 2016's tally of more than 1,700 people was unusually high.

Prior to 2016, the count hovered around 1,300 for several years, she said, which makes this year's count a return to the norm.

More valuable than the overall count is survey data that provide insight into Pierce County's homeless population, she said.

This year's count show a vast majority of the county's homeless -- 79 percent -- were living in the county when they lost their homes, meaning they did not migrate from elsewhere, as some residents fear. 

And, while mental illness and drug addiction played a role, most of those surveyed said economic factors or family breakups caused them to fall into homelessness. 

King County officials plan to release their homeless numbers sometime in May. All Home, the organization overseeing King County's census, radically changed its methodology this year, so the results won't yield meaningful comparisons to prior years. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.