This reflection on the 2015 One Night Count was originally published on the Compass Housing Alliance website. Tyler Roush is the communications manager for Compass Housing Alliance and was also an action team member on the One Night Count in the Southwest King County Headquarters.
They were counted huddled in a doorway or in a tent beneath a freeway overpass. Sleeping in a car parked in the lot of a sprawling retail store or riding a bicycle, their possessions slung to one side. In the early morning hours of Friday, Jan. 23, volunteers with the One Night Count filtered through areas of Seattle and King County where homeless people are known to sleep. What they found would break hearts.
In just three hours, volunteers organized by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness counted 3,772 people living without shelter in King County, a shocking 21 percent increase from last year’s total. (Due to the nature of the count, results are always assumed to be underreported.) The number is stark evidence of the need for more services for those who are homeless.
The survey area did expand this year to both previously included and new areas in the Southwest King County region. The Coalition organized the expansion in partnership with the King County Housing Authority (KCHA), which hosted volunteers at its headquarters in Tukwila. About 35 volunteers, many of them KCHA employees, began to gather shortly before 2 a.m. to meet up with their team leads, collect maps of their survey area and discuss ground rules. In the three short hours ahead, they would be tasked with counting the people living without shelter in their area.
Mark Abernathy and Chris Clevenger, both KCHA employees, were participating for the first time. Their survey area took them along a heavily trafficked stretch of highway, where people are known to sleep in their cars.
“It was interesting where we found people,” Mark said. “You see a car and you don’t necessarily think someone is living in it.”
They soon learned the telltale signs—fogged windows or a reclined seat are indicators that someone might be living in their vehicle.
“You’re never going to look at parked cars the same way again,” said their team leader, KCHA’s Kristy Johnson.
Their experience highlighted a fundamental duality in the process of the One Night Count. Each time they counted a person they felt a wave of adrenaline in accomplishing their mission. But that success was overwhelmed by a feeling of profound sadness for another person failed by our social system.
“It changes the way I look at where I live,” Chris said. “It makes me want to look for the signs everywhere I go.”
Wherever they visited, they said they never felt unsafe to be there.
“If it wasn’t safe, we figured they wouldn’t be there either,” Mark said.
In one instance, Chris described walking along a fence line in a park when he came upon a lean-to, carefully assembled with tree branches.
“It was clear that someone had slept there, but that it had been a while,” Chris said. “Seasonally it makes sense — tree branches don’t keep out the rain.
“So it made me wonder where they went … and if they’d be coming back.”
“Vulnerable, that’s how it feels to me”
As it did elsewhere, the One Night Count in Southwest King County brought people together from across the region. Laurie Gruel traveled farther than most to participate, coming from the Tri-Cities with her husband.
Laurie’s survey area took her team through a park, where they saw two men talking near a tent. One of the men spoke to them, and they asked if the two were sleeping in the park. He confirmed that they were.
“Right off, many in the general public think homeless people are criminals, or up to no good,” Laurie said. “If people could see this part of the count, they wouldn’t be so fearful.”
She added that the nighttime endeavor helps put homelessness into an appropriate context.
“When you see someone sleeping under a tarp in the rain, and you’re worried about getting your feet wet, that puts things in perspective,” Laurie said.
Altogether, 209 people were counted as having no shelter in the Southwest King County count area alone. Lisa Espinoza, who lives within the area surveyed, said she was surprised by how many they found. Her group counted one woman, huddled by a dumpster in an alleyway, asleep.
“Vulnerable, that’s how it feels to me,” she said.
Other counters noted a significant number of younger people, ages in their teens or early 20s, alone or sometimes in groups of two or three. A number of people had bicycles, a backpack or a few possessions strapped to one side; one young man had a boombox playing loud music in the damp night.
“Maybe we need to look at serving younger people,” said Linda Hargrove, a volunteer who works at Plymouth Housing Group.
For too many people, homelessness is not a brief or temporary experience, but one that lasts for years. Some of the tenants Linda works with had been homeless for 10 or 15 years before securing stable housing.
“There but for the grace of God go I,” she said.
From the streets to housing
Among the people who gathered in the early morning hours at KCHA headquarters, perhaps none understood the experience of living without shelter like Kirk McClain. From 2009 to August of 2014, Kirk was one of the thousands of the people living without a home in King County. Now, with a new job and a place to live, he participated in the One Night Count for the first time.
After returning from the survey, he recalled a life without shelter.
“I had to try to stay out of the elements, looking for a place to stay safe and warm,” he said. “The weather is where we experience the most discomfort.”
He said he knew of certain places, such as on the grounds of a hospital, where he might find warm air blowing from a vent. But almost without fail, a security guard would disturb his rest and tell him to move along.
But not every encounter was negative. Kirk kept a journal during his five years of homelessness, which he filled mostly with the simple kindnesses he received from others. He describes a few memories — a pillow given to him by a man who came down from his apartment (“His name was Joshua,” Kirk said. “I still remember.”), the $200 a person gave him after seeing him in Freeway Park filling out what he thought was a job application (“I explained to him it was a homelessness advocacy form, and told him about my job search,” Kirk said. “I spent it on food, new shoes and a coat. I needed one.”)
One night he came upon a hatchback vehicle bearing a company logo parked on a side street. He looked inside and could see boxes and trays of food.
A debate began to rage within him.
“I was really hungry – I hadn’t eaten in a day or two,” he recalled. “But then I thought, ‘If you do this, it’s a felony.’ I was thinking about having a record.”
He stood for a few moments, gripped by indecision. Finally, he tried the latch on the back door. It clicked open; he slowly lifted the gate. To take as much as he wanted, in that one moment…
But he didn’t. He closed the door and turned. A woman was watching from her balcony.
“I looked at her, as if to say, ‘You saw I didn’t do it,’” he said with a smile.
He was afraid she would call the police; instead, she came downstairs, bringing him a sandwich, soda, pieces of fruit and granola. They spoke for more than an hour.
“It was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he said.
Though he was homeless for five years, Kirk didn’t fit the profile of homelessness — his story is further proof that there is no profile. A certified paralegal with a Bachelor’s Degree in pre-law, Kirk had a job and a home when the recession struck. By 2009, he was out of a job. Before long, he was staying with friends. Later, he was sleeping outside.
“I became homeless because I lost my job,” he said.
His experience reflects another contradiction. Even today, he says there’s a small part of his brain that misses it. “The freedom,” Kirk said. “The complete freedom, to be unattached.”
But he quickly dismisses the notion. “I love it – the nightmare is over.”