King County to skip annual homeless count in 2022, cites concerns over ‘harmful’ methodology

Breaking with what had been a yearly routine prior to the pandemic, King County will opt not to conduct its “point in time” count of homeless residents in 2022.

The county is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to perform a count of those who living unsheltered in odd-numbered years. HUD then uses that data to allocate federal funding. Up until this last year, King County had opted to exceed that mandate and do the count annually.

King County did not have to do a point-in-time count in 2021 after being granted a waiver due to the ongoing pandemic.

For years, the methodology for the point-in-time count has faced criticism for not providing accurate data, given that it relies on volunteers to hand-count the number of people they observe living unsheltered on a single night, and then calculate a rough estimate of people they believe they might have missed living in abandoned buildings. That was one of the driving factors behind the King County Regional Homeless Authority’s (RHA) decision to skip the count in 2022.

“Because of the methodology, the PIT is widely understood to be an undercount, which can be harmful in skewing the narrative and limiting the budget and resources dedicated to solutions,” the RHA described in a recently-published FAQ. “… Because it relies on what volunteers see during a few hours in the early morning, in a neighborhood that may be unfamiliar to them, recorded on a paper tally sheet, at a time when there could be heavy rain or cold, there are many ways for data to be missed.”

Instead of doing the count in 2022, the RHA plans to “conduct qualitative engagement with people living unsheltered to learn more about their experiences and how we can better meet their needs.” It will then perform the count as mandated by HUD in 2023, with plans to “take a critical look” at data-gathering processes in the interim period to develop a “more illustrative snapshot of homelessness in our region.”

The last count performed in King County took place on Jan. 24, 2020, identifying just over 11,700 individuals experiencing homelessness. The largest numbers by far were recorded in Seattle, where 8,166 homeless individuals were counted. The next highest total (1,937) was identified in Southwest King County.

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