Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

King County’s One Night Count and the Invisible Families Left Behind

February 03, 2011

Last Friday, while much of the city was asleep, nearly 900 volunteers showed up, coffee in hand and ready to scan the streets, hop on buses, and walk down alleys—tallying the number of men, women, and children living outside on a winter night.

My colleague David Wertheimer and I joined Bill Hobson, director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, to participate in King County’s One Night Count of people who are homeless, coordinated by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.

We were assigned to Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, where we counted 43 people living in cars, trucks, and dilapidated campers, and an additional 3 people sleeping outside on the ground.

I was struck by the faces of homelessness in Ballard. Many people we counted looked like us, like the people we come across throughout the day—people working at jobs that just do not pay a livable wage. While most of us are fortunate enough to go back to our homes after a hard day’s work, when their day is done, they must try to find a safe place for the night.

The One Night Count was an incredible and humbling experience, and in total, volunteers counted 2,442 people in King County alone. This is an 11-percent drop from last year, and the first double-digit drop recorded by the One Night Count. While encouraging, this figure is only a small snapshot of the real problem. We know that as many as 6,000 homeless people sleep in shelters each night. Other invisible faces of homelessness are out there, uncounted and unregistered. Experts say there are about 9,000 homeless people in King County on any given night.

Yet, these numbers often do not include another large population of homeless: families with children. Reducing family homelessness is a focus of the foundation’s work in our home state of Washington. The hard truth is that families with children make up nearly half—yes, half—of the homeless population in Washington state.

I believe that most homeless families don’t appear in the One Night Count. The Seattle Times calls them “invisible families.” It’s likely that most homeless families with children live with family or friends or in borrowed garages and basements, while others seek places to park or camp that are even more hidden than the places David, Bill, and I were able to find.

The effects of homelessness on children are vast and devastating. This is brought to life in Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary, “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County,” which screened in Seattle a few weeks ago. A young boy in the documentary is asked about his greatest wish. He didn’t want a computer, or to travel the world. His one wish: “To redo my life.”

That’s heartbreaking. A child should never have to wish such a thing. Bill and Melinda Gates agree, and that’s why the foundation is deeply committed to reducing family homelessness here in our backyard.

The One Night Count reinforces how personal this is. The count is an important reminder that too many people are homeless. It’s also a reminder to us of those left out of the count—the many “invisible” families and children who have no place to call home.

I encourage you to learn more about our work with partners like King County and Building Changes.

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