For 28 years, the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) and Operation Nightwatch have conducted the nation’s longest running and most community-driven annual count of persons experiencing homelessness. This year’s count involved 900 volunteers in conducting a physical street tally of unsheltered homeless people in the early morning hours of a freezing January night. There were 2,631.
Numbers are inherently political. At a time when HUD claims that Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness have reduced chronic homelessness nationwide by 30% — despite rising housing costs, widening inequality, and a relentless assault on federal programs that serve the poor, Seattle’s news this year that street homelessness was up by 15% was especially unwelcome. That number rises to 18% when limited to areas in Seattle that align across the 2007 and 2008 counts.
Nobody wants to see the numbers of homeless people in Seattle rise. This is not news to celebrate. Nor is this news to bury or deny.
Since the creation of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, funding for the One Night Count has come through that body. This arrangement has helped fund staffing for SKCCH. The report used to be produced in Word Perfect. Now, it is a glossy, professionally designed 20-pager.
This support comes at a potential cost. CEHKC has a well-defined interest in showing progress. The count, as opposed to growing homelessness, is viewed by some as a problem to be fixed. At a recent Interagency Council meeting of CEHKC, Director Bill Block clearly indicated that he wants more control over the published report and even the count itself.
SKCCH, he said, puts too much "spin" on the numbers. This from the man who routinely states that the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness is on track by counting units "in the pipeline" when the internal documents clearly state that 10YP goals are being missed by half.
This is a case of politics potentially getting in the way of truth. We prefer things the other way around. The take-over of the One Night Count wouldn’t happen without a fight, and we here at Real Change know whose side we’re on.