The shortened dreary days and crisp temperatures that come with the Seattle winter season are conditions thousands of people have to endure every day and night without shelter.
The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH), the oldest independent homeless advocacy organization in the country, sent over 800 volunteers out in the wee hours of Jan. 25 for their One Night Count, an annual census of the county’s homeless.
“There are two main parts to the One Night Count: one is counting the people who are inside at shelters and transitional housing programs,” said Alison Eisinger, the director of SKCCH. “The other is for people who are outside on the street, in cars, in tents or sitting in other emergency departments just trying to get warm.”
After three hours of scouring around the nine neighborhood headquarters, the volunteers regrouped at 5 a.m. and counted up their tallies.
The count came to 2,736 this year, showing a 5 percent increase or 141 more individuals.
“I think one of the most important things for people to understand is that this number reflects what’s going on in our communities outside when the shelters are full,” Eisinger said. “People can see from [these statistics] that shelters were beyond full and there was still 2,736 people trying to survive outside.”
The exact number of people in shelters has not been tallied yet, but Eisinger believes the number will be close in the range of 5,800 to 5,900 people. Last year, 6,236 were counted between overnight or emergency shelters and transitional housing programs.
“It’s very important that the statistics found through the One Night Count aren’t just numbers that [SKCCH] reports, but that they inspire others to want to take action with helping house people,” Eisinger said.
Just like the wide range of volunteers who took a few hours to help contribute to the cause while getting a glimpse of what people trying to survive on the streets have to deal with firsthand.
“Volunteers are always shocked,” Eisinger said. “We have [volunteers] who are very saddened to realize there are people sleeping outside without even a blanket.”
One team came across an individual who had died of hypothermia.
At 9 a.m. Friday morning, a gong was sounded outside City Hall for every person found on the street earlier that morning.
As the sun began to break behind the clouds, several individuals, including Seattle City Council members, took turns ringing the gong for five-minute shifts.
About 30 people attended the ceremony, making their presence both visible and audible.
“Sometimes the numbers just resonate as numbers, and I think [the sponsors Share/Wheel and Real Change] wanted each individual person to stand out on their own,” Eisinger said.
The statistics from the One Night Count are useful to The Committee to End Homelessness, which has been working on their 10-year Plan to End Homelessness.
Since the original plan was adopted, “more than 30,000 people have left homelessness and more than 5,000 new housing units have been created for people who were once homeless,” according to the 2013 One Night Count press release.
According to a Seattle Times article, the plan, now in its eighth year, will shift focus from funding permanent shelters to funding more emergency shelters.
Eisinger, on the other hand, believes the importance lies in giving people a safe place to be 24 hours a day.
“[Seattle] shouldn’t give up on creating permanent housing,” Eisinger said. “…though permanent housing takes longer to build, they are going to have something better to offer people in the end.”
Recently, homelessness has been raised as a concern on the national level too.
In his 2013 Fiscal Year budget, Obama proposed a 17 percent increase for funding several homelessness programs, continuing with the Administration and Congress’ focus to bring down the number of homeless people nationally.
This brings the total to $2.231 billion allocated for the Department of Housing and Urban Development programs.
“One of the things that I think is very sad is that [America] has come to accept homelessness as somehow an inevitable part of our society,” Eisinger said.
Eisinger believes that people need to collectively not only feel shame and sadness about homelessness but outrage and inspiration, in order to prove that change is necessary.
“What [SKCCH] does is try to make sure the numbers of who we counted are a powerful motivator for the state,” Eisinger said.
The Coalition will have Advocacy 101 workshops in Seattle and Bellevue on Saturday, Feb. 9, where people will be taught how to communicate with their elected officials in Olympia in order to try to difference about homelessness.
Looking towards the future, students could play an integral role when trying to invoke transformations in society about homelessness.
“With all of the important decisions being made in the state and federal levels, college students have the opportunity to help drive social and public policy in a real positive way,” Eisinger said.
In February 2005, Seattle University hosted Tent City 3 on the tennis courts, becoming the first university in the nation to host a homeless encampment.
And today, Seattle University is still lending a helping hand with the project on family homelessness.
“For 2013, our focus is on supporting our family homelessness advocacy partners, the nonprofit organizations in Washington state who work to end family homelessness,” according to Seattle U’s Project on Family Homelessness page.
With the abundance of facets to choose from in the Seattle area for people who want to get involved with helping to fight for this cause, the possibilities to help fight against homelessness are nearly endless.
“The Count is a call to action each January,” Eisinger said. “[It’s] the beginning of a full year of education and action for all of us who care about this crisis.
Ashley may be reached at [email protected]