King County skipping annual homeless count for second year

KING COUNTY, Wash. — A Seattle Pacific University sociologist said King County’s decision to skip the annual point-in-time count for a second year is a mistake. The count identifies those who are experiencing homelessness.

“As a social scientist the main reason is we need data to inform our policy responses to this issue,” said SPU sociology professor Karen Snedker.

In January 2020, there were an estimated 11,751 people who were experiencing homelessness in King County, a 5% spike from the year before.

However, it is unknown how many people are living on the street now because the count was skipped this year due to COVID-19 concerns, and now the county has announced it is foregoing the count in 2022 too.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority said, “To clarify, the KCRHA is not “opting out” of the count; we are proposing an alternative methodology for 2022, and we are in consultation with HUD to ensure that we meet federal requirements.”

KCRHA also said, “the PIT (Point in Time) is widely understood to be an undercount... Instead, we will conduct qualitative engagement with people living unsheltered to learn more about their experiences and how we can better meet their needs.”

“My concern is not that they’re doing the qualitative piece but they’re doing it at the expense of the count, of the quantitative assessment that we’ve historically done for decades,” said Snedker. “Just because we might undercount, doesn’t mean there’s no value to the rest of the data that we collect. And the response to undercounting seems to me, needs to be, what are the ways we can improve the method or design to reduce that undercounting, not to abandon the count altogether.”

Snedker said she was struck by the proliferation of tent encampments in Seattle, so she and a group of undergrads conducted their own counts. She found that there was a dramatic spike in tents from 2019 to 2020.

“The fact that we saw a 53% increase in that time period during COVID, even if it’s due to seasonal adjustments, there still seems to be an increase. So I would love to see the data collected in January to also compare to the data we’ve collected,” she said.

And given how the pandemic has ravaged the economy, Snedker said the count is needed more than ever this year.

“I think that’s why it’s fundamentally important for governance that this count be done because the public is increasingly worried and frustrated by what looks like a lack of progress. And it might not be, but we need to see where we are from where we were in 2020,” Snedker said.