EVERETT — An annual effort to estimate Snohomish County’s homeless population has been partially canceled this year due to COVID-19 concerns.
Local government and nonprofit officials said this week they will not recruit volunteers to count the number of people living on the streets across the county, as they have done in past years as part of a process known as the Point-In-Time Count.
The local count typically involves roughly 400 nonprofit staffers and volunteers, who fan out across the county to find and speak with as many homeless people as they can. But doing so this year would unnecessarily put people at risk and require a large amount of personal protective gear that could otherwise go to health care professionals and other frontline workers, according to Jackie Anderson, a manager for the county Department of Human Services.
The county will still work with local human service agencies to tally the number of people staying in homeless shelters later this month, Anderson said.
The count is typically done in a single day, in step with similar surveys across the country. The results provide insight into how many people are facing homelessness, who they are and how the population has changed over time. That data also helps government agencies, legislators and non-profit organizations determine what programs are priorities for funding.
Some other jurisdictions, including King County, have also chosen to forgo the unsheltered portion of the count this year.
Last January, the Snohomish County survey counted 459 people in emergency shelters or transitional housing and 673 more without shelter.
Advocates for people experiencing homelessness and lawmakers have questioned whether the pandemic has forced more people onto the streets.
Locally, there’s been some “anecdotal evidence” of homelessness increasing, said Robin Hood, a grants and program specialist for the county Office of Housing and Community Services. Some nonprofits have heard from more homeless people seeking services, for example, he said.
The issue attracted the attention of Everett residents and businesses last summer, when city and county officials broke up homeless encampments downtown and on Rucker Avenue, despite guidance from federal public health experts advising against such sweeps.
“When everything shut down, homelessness probably became very visible,” said Anderson.
But determining whether more people are living on the streets — and if the pandemic has driven a change in that number — are complicated questions, she said.
A statewide eviction moratorium has so far barred landlords from kicking tenants out during the public health crisis. That moratorium is now set to expire at the end of March, but Gov. Jay Inslee could extend it, as he has done several times in the past year.
Before the pandemic began, the county had a shortage of hundreds of shelter beds, human services officials have said.
Now, social distancing restrictions have reduced space available at those facilities. Agencies serving the homeless have tried to offset that loss with temporary emergency shelters and motel vouchers.
Last fall, local governments won a $4.3 million state grant that’s expected provide shelter for about 90 more people. City and county officials have proposed using some of the money to open a new shelter and build a community of low-cost shelter units, known as “pallet shelters.” They’re still working out the details of those plans.
The non-profit organizations that typically help with the Point-In-Time Count are busy with pandemic-related efforts, Anderson said in an email to an official at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which requires the survey.
“If nonprofit staff were redeployed to conduct the Count, not only would it curtail the delivery of critical pandemic-related services but could exacerbate the existing public health crisis,” Anderson wrote, requesting the department’s permission to skip the unsheltered portion of the count.
Federal officials granted Anderson’s request on Dec. 28.
The state has also notified local governments that the unsheltered count won’t be required as usual, according to a county news release issued on Friday.