Communities across the state will fan out this week to count people experiencing homelessness. The yearly point-in-time count is one tool local leaders use to measure the scope of the homelessness crisis.
On Thursday and Friday, volunteers and service providers will go out and try to count everyone staying in shelters, vehicles and tents. The count is required for communities receiving funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. It's also required by state law.
Each county is responsible for conducting the count. Statewide statistics are collected by the Washington Department of Commerce, which also coordinates directly with 34 small and medium-sized counties.
The point-in-time count provides a general estimate of people experiencing homelessness, and it's one factor that guides funding decisions. But it's not a perfect statistic because conditions can change every year.
"Local service providers and volunteers always come back the days after the count and feel like there was an undercount," said Nick Mondeau with the state commerce department.
Mondeau says it's especially challenging to count people in remote areas of the state's small and medium-sized counties. Counting people may involve navigating heavily wooded areas, and changes in the weather may cause people who would be counted to shift where they normally stay.
More than 21,000 Washingtonians were counted as homeless during last year's point-in-time count. One thing the numbers do show is that homelessness affects virtually every community in the state, Mondeau says.
"Maybe most days out of the year people feel like, 'Oh ,there's no homelessness problem in our community. There's no people who are unsheltered. That's just in Seattle,'" Mondeau said. "But then the count results come back and you do see there's at least some people out there."
Counties are expected to release the results of this year's count later in the spring. Some may still be seeking last-minute volunteers. Coordinators for individual counties can be found on this list from the commerce department.