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Seeing Sparks: Reflections on King County’s Point in Time Count

June 21, 2017

When I tell people I work at the Gates Foundation on an initiative aimed at reducing family homelessness in the Puget Sound region, they frequently ask me whether I think we are making any progress. Sadly, many people seem to think that homelessness is an intractable problem that can’t be solved and that people sleeping outside without a permanent roof over their heads is an inevitable feature of modern American life. And I understand their perspective—it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the numbers and the personal suffering that lies behind each statistic. A few weeks ago, King County released Count Us In, its annual point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness, and reported that on January 27, 2017, 11,643 people in King County were homeless. Nearly half reported being completely unsheltered (sleeping on the street or in cars/RVs and tents), while the other half spent the night in emergency shelter or transitional housing.

I’ve worked in housing and homelessness for many years here in Seattle and hearing statistics like this never gets easier. It’s heartbreaking to think about how many of our neighbors are forced to live without a permanent roof over their heads and frustrating to think that this is possible in a region, state, and country with so much wealth at its disposal. I think about lost potential—nearly 30 percent of the current homeless population report being employed while experiencing homelessness, over half have worked over the past year, and almost one-third report having a bachelor’s, associate’s degree, or some college. And most of all, I think about the 1,689 children experiencing homelessness and how they must be struggling to focus on their school work while living in a shelter or transitional housing.   

And yet, as bleak as this data is, and as important as it is for us to redouble our efforts to find permanent housing for each and every individual and family without a home, it’s also important for us to recognize and celebrate the progress that we are making to improve the way that we respond as a community to homelessness. If we take a step back and look at the big picture of where we stand today compared to just a few years ago, we can see we are making progress—especially when it comes to supporting families experiencing homelessness.  

  • Nearly all homeless families in King County are being sheltered. 97 percent of individuals in families were sheltered on the night of the count.
  • Our system is serving more people more quickly and more effectively. Over 7,500 households moved from homelessness to permanent housing in 2016, a 52 percent increase from 2013.  Families are also receiving assistance in less time and once housed, fewer households are returning to homelessness. 

  • Data system improvements are allowing us to better coordinate and align the amazing work of the many providers in our community. Just a few years ago, it was almost impossible to answer basic questions about how our homelessness response system was functioning. Today, we have publicly available dashboards that allow us to track our progress and more precisely measure the gaps that exist between the number of people seeking homelessness services and the resources we have to provide them. 
  • A rising community. We are a community that cares about each other and local funders are showing a commitment to addressing homelessness in the Puget Sound. Recent investments from Amazon, Paul Allen, the Raikes Foundation, the Campion Advocacy Fund, and many others demonstrate confidence that our system is improving and that progress is being made.   

When I joined the foundation nine years ago, I was thrilled to join an organization that tackles big problems with impatience. I’m impatient myself and want to see change come about quickly and dramatically. But what I’ve recognized over the years is that progress builds upon itself like fire and that getting a big fire going requires a lot of little sparks. I’m inspired every day by the sparks I see being generated by all of our grantees and partners who work tirelessly to improve the lives of our neighbors experiencing homelessness. And as daunting as our work can seem, the truth of the matter is that we are making progress and learning what works and what doesn’t work. With continuing community support, I’m convinced the sparks that we’re seeing will ultimately light a path for the thousands of people in our region seeking a way home.  

 
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