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One Night Count finds fewer sleeping unsheltered on Eastside
Editor’s Note: The Bellevue Reporter was invited to follow a group of Bellevue volunteers for the 2014 One Night Count. What follows includes a narrative of the count of unsheltered homeless in downtown Bellevue. Specific locations have been omitted to honor the privacy of a vulnerable population.
It was quiet in the wee hours of Jan. 24. And for some Eastside volunteers of the One Night Count, the annual census of King County’s homeless, the evening was mostly uneventful.
That’s not a bad thing when you’re talking about men, women and children sleeping unsheltered in the winter.
One night a year, the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness gathers volunteers to venture out and count people sleeping in cars or known campout areas. Those figures are combined with the number of residents in recognized homeless camp sites, such as Tent City, to create an unsheltered count for the year. The figure is an assumed undercount due to limitations of time and manpower — not to mention the desire of some homeless not to be found — but the figure provides clear data on where the problem of homelessness stands year-to-year.
King County’s numbers were up 14 percent in 2014, at 3,117 persons counted compared to last year’s 2,736. Seattle carried the brunt of the increase, seeing its count rise by 403 people. Kent, Federal Way, Renton, Auburn and the area’s overnight buses all saw at least moderate increases in their counts; Auburn had the greatest percentage increase, going from 57 homeless in 2013 to 97 this year.
The remaining areas were down — in the case of Northend King County, drastically so. The Eastside saw a slight decrease from 197 to 178. Specific groups’ counts are not cleared for publication, but Stephanie Beighle, a Count veteran and the leader of the Bellevue team shadowed by the Reporter, noted her count was half what she would normally expect.
“That’s good,” she said toward the end of the night. “It means more people are using the winter shelters.”
Beighle has been a participant in the Count since its second year, and a count leader for almost as long. It’s a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly. She conducted two daylight pre-counts earlier in the week to gain an idea of where the likely campout sites were, and in previous years she’s brought her daughters along to help.
“For me, personally, the count used to be a little scary,” Beighle said.
Later, after the group overheard voices while counting underneath a city overpass, she elaborated that she had been afraid of coming across people who might be hostile to strangers near their hidden campsites. These days, she trusts in the safety of working in groups and taking every precaution in respecting the personal space of the Count’s subjects. “Remember, we’re walking through someone’s bedroom” is the motto repeated early and often throughout the night. It’s more apt some years than others.
“One year, we found a whole bedroom set outside,” Beighle said. “For a family. I think that was the worst of the families we counted that year.”
Beighle was joined by three other veteran counters — Leslie Miller of The Sophia Way, and Emily Leslie and Alex O’Reilly of the Bellevue Human Services Division — and two newcomers: Councilmember Lynne Robinson and her husband, Dan, an administrator for the King County Housing Authority.
“I’m here to find out more about the city’s homeless situation,” she said. “Affordable housing is an important issue for both myself and Dan.”
Robinson said she would like to bring more affordable housing into the city of Bellevue, through tax incentives for residential developers or other means. She and Dan note that most apartments are prohibitively expensive for people earning a lower income.
Beighle’s Bellevue group primarily checked under overpasses and other off-the-beaten paths for campsites, and in parking lots for car dwellers. Throughout, she kept the group on top of protocol: stay together, stay quiet, keep your flashlights aimed at your feet. Observe from afar.
Two voices were the only direct evidence of people the group was able to count. The rest was determined by found campsites. Beighle found the lion’s share, noting hideaways easily missed by everyone else.
“After so many years doing this, you learn what to look for,” she said after pointing out one well-hidden camp. “They’re usually camouflaged really well. They don’t want to be found.”
Over the course of the night she said she was surprised to find many campsites broken down and abandoned — including ones that appeared occupied during her daylight precounts. It was a potential good sign, if it meant the occupants were making use of the winter shelters. The turn of events makes each return to her car into a minor negotiation. Was a camp intact? Did it appear abandoned? And, ultimately: should it count?
The group was heartened by its low numbers as it returned to the Eastside base camp, Bellevue Presbyterian Church. But they were aware their results were likely a sign of better shelter services, and not necessarily a decline in the homeless population. The higher numbers from other Count areas would confirm the latter, and a Jan. 28 email from Hopelink Housing Director Meghan Altimore, an Eastside coordinator for the count, would confirm the former.
“While (East King County numbers are) down from last year, we can’t forget that there were an additional 125 men, women and children sleeping at our Eastside Winter Shelters,” she wrote to volunteers.