Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Nearly half of Pierce County's homeless population are people of color

Will James
Part of an encampment that existed on Tacoma's tideflats in 2017.

Results from Pierce County's annual census of the homeless population show a striking, but familiar, pattern around race. 

Nearly half of people who are homeless in the county — 46 percent — identified as people of color during the "point-in-time" count conducted on Jan. 25, according to results released Monday. 

That's despite people of color making up just over a quarter of the county's overall population. 

The pattern is not new or unusual, said Clayton Aldern, who analyzes data on homelessness for the county. 

"That disproportionality writ large is pretty representative of the homeless system in Pierce County and of years past," he said. 

Pierce County was part of a nationwide study on the reasons why people of color are over-represented in the U.S. homeless population. Researchers with the nonprofit Center for Social Innovation concluded last year that poverty alone did not explain the disparity, and "systemic" forces, such as the legacies of racist housing and economic policies, were in part to blame.

A separate study by the University of Washington recently found that one out of every six black residents of Pierce County was evicted between 2013 and 2017. Black residents of the county were nearly seven times more likely to be evicted than white ones, the study said. 

Results from King County's latest point-in-time count aren't expected until May. But last year's census showed a similar pattern: a majority of homeless people identified as people of color. 

Pierce County's recent census identified nearly 1,500 homeless people in total, and registered a drop in the number of people sleeping in tents, on sidewalks and in vehicles.

But experts caution that year-to-year shifts are often a result of evolving methodologies or factors such as the weather, and don't necessarily point to changes in the number of people who are homeless. Pierce County officials have been refining their counting methods for several years. 

"It's a pretty wildly statistically uncertain measure of what homlessness looks like in the county, which isn't to suggest it's not valuable," Aldern said. "The point-in-time count does help us, for example, get a better picture of what the unsheltered population looks like." 

Pierce County's census found a vast majority of respondents were living in the county before they became homeless, and less than a quarter reported having a substance-abuse disorder.

The most commonly reported reasons for becoming homeless were a lack of affordable housing, inadequate income or employment, eviction or foreclosure, family breakup or crisis, and "unknown." 

The annual point-in-time count is believed to capture just a fraction of any county's true homeless population. In Pierce County, for example, nearly 11,000 people sought help with housing in 2018. 

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.
Related Content