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Homeless populations rise in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties

The Puget Sound metro area's homeless population rose since 2019, and disparities persist across racial and ethnic lines, according to the annual one-night count.

SEATTLE — Homeless populations across the Puget Sound metro area increased over last year, according to the most recent one-night counts released this week.

King County saw a 5% increase in the number of homeless people over last year, according to a one-night count released Wednesday.

During the point-in-time count in January, volunteers counted 11,751 people experiencing homelessness across the county, 53% of whom were sheltered. That’s up from 11,199 people last year but still down from 2018’s count of 12,112 people.

The number of people staying in vehicles rose from 2019 (2,147 people) to 2020 (2,748 people). All Home and VN Research, which conducted the count and analyzed the data, said this change could be explained by the expansion of safe parking programs.

At the same time, the number of people sleeping on the street dropped by nearly 700 people, which the report authors said could have been caused by rainfall the morning of the count.

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Homelessness continues to disproportionately affect communities of color in King County, researchers found.

Just 1% of King County’s population identifies as American Indian or Alaska Native, but that group makes up 15% of the county’s homeless population, according to the report. Also, about 7% of King County residents identify as Black, but that group is about 25% of the county's homeless population.

Leo Flor, director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services, said that is a result of structural racism.

“Racial disproportion continues to show up in a regularly persistent and painful way,” Flor said. “Both [Blacks and Native Americans] really exhibiting shockingly high disproportionality over multiple years of data”  

Snohomish County also released its annual homeless count Wednesday reporting a slight increase over last year. In January, Snohomish County recorded 1,132 homeless people, which is 16 more people than were counted in 2019.

This was less than Snohomish County expected as demand for homeless services rose 10.5% 2019, according to Snohomish County Human Services.

Pierce County reported a nearly 28% increase in its homeless population over the last year, the majority of which came from unsheltered people. In January, volunteers counted 1,897 homeless people, which is 411 more people than last year.

However, the county says it modified its workflow this year, which may have contributed to the increase. Volunteers conducted part of the count at known encampments overnight and included unsheltered people who did not consent to a survey. Previously only those surveyed were included.

The counts were conducted in January, so this data did not include the impact of the global pandemic and the economic crisis that followed.

But Flor said that King County expects the risk of homelessness throughout the region is now higher because of those factors.

“We dont have the point-in-time data for the COVID emergency," Flor said. "But we have every reason to believe that more people are experiencing homelessness or at risk of experiencing homelessness as the COVID-19 emergency has really presented this dual public health and economic crises."

Flor said that the federal government's pandemic bailout package may have forestalled a greater homelessness crisis.

“We are very conscious and aware if that financial support were to cease or we have policy changes that we would expect to see more people move to that first-timer homelessness category,” Flor said.  

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