Pierce County leads a spot county of homeless people
Pierce County conducted its annual one-night count of homeless people on Thursday, but some members of the provider community question its accuracy as the county strengthens other data collection efforts.
Concerns among homeless service providers have increased in light of recent encampment clearances.
Dozens of volunteers leave at the beginning of the year to count the number of people living outside and do the spot count.
During a 24-hour period, they visit camps, common overnight parking lots and trails. They ask those who are homeless their age, race, why they are homeless and for how long, and hand out sanitation bags with masks, hand warmers and hand sanitizer.
The point count is required by the Federal Ministry of Housing and Urban Development in order to receive funding. Pierce County receives $6.4 million annually to fund programs such as rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing, emergency shelter and outreach, communications director Libby Catalinich said.
Over the past four years, the one-time count has fluctuated: 1,628 homeless people recorded in 2018; 1,486 in 2019; 1,897 in 2020; and 1,005 in 2021.
Orlando Stumvoll works for Comprehensive Life Resources. He told The News Tribune that in his six years of counting it has never been accurate but it needs to be done. The weather, the time of the month and the number of volunteers are all variables that can influence the number.
“The important thing is to be able to have the money and the resources so that when these people are ready, we have the right help for them,” Stumvoll said.
The count is considered a “snapshot” of roaming, but some service providers are wary of the data.
Maureen Howard of the Tacoma-Pierce County Homeless Coalition sees counting as an imperfect tool and says it can be dangerous when policy is based on spot counting.
“You can only count people that you can find in a certain amount of time on a certain day,” Howard said. “You may be able to provide them with resources when you go out to count, but we cannot establish a policy on a one-time count that we know is imperfect.”
King County skipped the count this year for a second year, saying it would instead conduct “qualitative engagements” like surveys, interviews and focus groups. The federal government has exempted entities from doing the count this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Pierce County staff and homeless service providers began using Coordinated Entry, a countywide database of anyone with access to homeless services. Pierce County Social Services estimates there are about 3,300 homeless people in the county, according to a November presentation to county council.
The county argues the point count may reach some who may not have entered the database yet, Catalinich said.
Although the accuracy of the count is questioned, volunteers said there were other benefits, such as building relationships with homeless people.
When Stumvoll was younger, he says, he was homeless and the awareness helped him.
“Someone offered to help me. And I made the decision to take it, and my life has been different ever since,” he said.
John Nicholas is a therapist and volunteered to help count people living without accommodation on Thursday evening. He sees the Point Count as an opportunity to build relationships between people living outdoors and resources and suppliers.
“We asked them a few questions and gave them a bag of tricks. If it helps them, the next time we come to see them, they’ll be more willing to say, “OK, you’re not the man”, you’re not against me, you’re here to really do something to help. They will be more willing to engage with that,” he said.
While volunteers use the camps to reach those living without shelter, some have recently been cleared of mines. City of Tacoma officials will sweep Pierce County’s largest homeless encampment next week, under Interstate 705 off Puyallup Avenue and A Street, the first location visited by volunteers on Thursday evening.
Howard believes such sweeps erode the trust established by volunteers and social service workers.
“How are we going to find them and help provide resources? Howard said.
Asked about the importance of building relationships during the count while conducting camp sweeps, County Manager Bruce Dammeier recalled that a person living under Interstate 705 asked volunteers for a larger tent. and a volunteer replied that the goal was to get people off the streets, not to help them live more comfortably on the streets.
Dammeier pointed to the recent expansion of services, staff and funding for homeless services. The county council approved its largest allocation — $253 million — for homeless services in November. These dollars will expand existing shelters and add more in Pierce County, while increasing support services.
Dammeier was absent Thursday night for the count, saying volunteering allowed him to see the situation firsthand.
“When I see people living on the streets of Pierce County, I know we can do better for them and for our community,” he said.