EVERETT — Officials will hold a formal count of Snohomish County’s homeless population Feb. 22, after the pandemic hampered the annual event last year.
The point-in-time count is an imperfect but important tool in tracking the local homeless population, its demographics and its needs. County and city officials use the data to apply for funding and to determine what projects can most help combat homelessness.
Last year was the county’s first chance to see how a raging pandemic affected the count. But safety concerns around COVID-19 meant half of the event was canceled.
“Here we are in the middle of COVID, and there’s a lot of discussion about what’s happening: Are the numbers increasing? Are the numbers decreasing?” said MJ Brell Vujovic, who directs the county’s Department of Human Services. “The truth is, without count numbers, we really aren’t in a position to say, other than anecdotally.”
In recent discussions around the county’s efforts to convert an Everett hotel and use a new sales tax to increase emergency shelter, officials said they suspected the pandemic pushed more residents into homelessness.
Last year, the half-count covered people staying in shelters and accessing services, but volunteers didn’t fan out around the county to tally and interview those sleeping on the streets, in cars or in forested camps.
“It’s obviously not the same thing as having the full count,” said Holly Shelton, a county supervisor who helps organize the event.
With shelters often at capacity, Vujovic said, data collected on the streets can be more valuable. It illustrates the county’s “overflow” population — those turned away from shelters due to capacity limits or behavioral issues, along with people who may not be comfortable staying in shelters.
Even in freezing temperatures, much of the county’s homeless population sleeps in tents and cars, not shelters.
The count notes each person’s gender, race, veteran status, where they slept the night before and if they’re struggling with physical or mental illnesses, including substance use disorder. School districts help in counting homeless youth, and some nonprofits hold so-called “magnet events,” offering hot meals or laundry service to help congregate those who need to be counted. In days following the one-night count, people are tallied through homeless services and organizations.
Weather, volunteer availability and a host of other factors can influence total numbers year to year.
“It’s humans counting humans,” Shelton said. “We’re all experiencing life, and we just kind of have to account for the fact that it’s not going to be perfect.”
For example, counting young people has been a consistent challenge, Vujovic said.
“I think a lot of youth are concerned about being counted, and potential long-term implications in their lives,” she said.
Vujovic said it’s helpful to look at long-term trends rather than individual count numbers.
“If there’s anything that’s a very consistent picture, it’s that increasingly the people who are on the streets are chronically homeless and have multiple challenges,” she said. “Either mental health, substance use disorder, or chronic physical health (issues). Two of the three, or all three.”
It’s an increasingly complex population, she said, and that points to a need for housing paired with “wrap-around” services.
Housing and Community Services manager Jackie Anderson echoed the sentiment, saying mental and physical health services built into new capital projects “is critical for these folks.”
“They need that,” she said. “At least for some period of time, they do.”
Even with a federally granted extension, officials say COVID could still be a limiting factor.
Shelton said she suspects magnet events may be canceled to avoid getting people sick. Normally, hundreds of volunteers are coached to conduct interviews for the count. But with COVID safety concerns, the hope is to lean more on law enforcement, embedded social workers and first responders to do that work.
Members of the public have been asking Shelton if they can volunteer. But so far, COVID has made her hesitant.
“It’s really hard to think we’d say no to that,” she said.