Understanding the One Night Count report on homelessness

Last week, the results of the annual One Night Count (renamed “Count Us In” this year) were released, giving us updated data on the extent and nature of the homeless crisis in King County and Seattle.

The full report is 116 pages of tables. It’s heavy on data and light on interpretation.  After spending several days poring over the report, here are my thoughts on what it means.

We need to preface the conversation with a quick discussion on methodology. The way they conducted the survey this year departed significantly from past years: they were far more thorough in counting in every part of the city, and they used paid “guides” who are either currently or formerly homeless to help the survey-takers find the places where homeless people were likely to be living. So whereas last year they extrapolated the final numbers from a smaller sample concentrated in areas where homeless people are known to be, this year they have a much more complete first-hand count. From the report:

In prior years, the street count primarily covered known areas where individuals experiencing homelessness congregated. In 2017, the general street count sought to canvass the entire region. Street count teams covered all but two of the 398 census tracts that comprise Seattle/King County, which were inaccessible to count teams due to weather conditions. While difficult to make specific comparisons to coverage achieved during prior counts, the 2016 count focused primarily on Seattle proper and the more densely populated areas of South and East King County, with less consistent coverage in the North, Northeast, and Southeast regions. The increased coverage during the street count in 2017 ensured that all communities in Seattle/King County were represented in the count, and that individuals experiencing homelessness beyond the urban cores and into outlying areas of the county were counted to the standard of the entire region.

They still needed to estimate in some cases, particularly because they couldn’t enter and count people in every car, RV, tent and abandoned building. Based on prior work, they used a standard set of multipliers to estimate how many people live in each.

In addition, they followed up in the weeks after the initial count to complete in-depth surveys with a random sample of homeless people. In all, 1158 surveys were completed, and the results were “normalized” using the data from the One Night Count to create a set of results that represent the demographics of the homeless population in King County as a whole. They believe the numbers are accurate to +/- 2.7%, with a 95% confidence level after normalizing them; that sounds about right given they surveyed about 10% of the homeless population. As a sanity check, the chart below show that the demographics of the survey respondents matches close enough to the overall homeless population statistics that they could normalize it without too much trouble. Red flags would be if a particular demographic were completely unrepresented, or if the numbers were skewed so much that they suggested some systemic bias in who was being asked to complete the survey, but there’s no evidence of those issues.

Unfortunately, since the methodology changed dramatically this year many comparisons with past years’ data aren’t possible. The total count from past years should be accurate, but since they counted directly in some places and estimated for others, the underlying demographics are hard to compare side-by-side. We can get a good, detailed snapshot of January 2017, but beyond the top-level numbers we can’t ask “what changed in the last year?” This is what happens when you change methodology — though sometimes it’s still necessary in order to get data you can trust.

One other important note on the results: with few exceptions, they are for all of King County, not just Seattle. Over the winter, the City of Seattle contracted with the same company that implemented the One Night Count to do a “needs assessment” survey among the Seattle homeless population. A comparison of the Seattle needs assessment and the King County One Night Count results give similar but not perfectly aligned results; this is what you expect given that King County includes many smaller towns and rural areas where the experience of homelessness might be a little different. But the differences between the studies aren’t significant enough to call into question the validity of either. It does raise an interesting point though: given that Seattle is a city with porous borders and decent transportation infrastructure, it makes far more sense to look at the county as a whole than just Seattle. Homelessness is a regional problem, and it needs to be understood and addressed as a region.


Ok, let’s start diving into the numbers, starting with the big one: the total number of homeless people in King County. The final count this year was 11,643, up 8.9% from 10,688 last year. Going back to 2014, you can see a clear, consistent trend.

Looking across the entire homeless population, the survey data confirms many things already known, and continues to dispel common myths about homelessness here and elsewhere. For starters, King County’s homeless problem is homegrown: 77%  became homeless here. 81% have lived here for more than one year, and yet 41% became homeless within the last year.

When asked if they would move inside if safe, affordable housing were made available, 91% said “yes.”

There are homeless people throughout King County, though Seattle and the southwest part of the county have the largest shares.

43% lived in their own home (owned or rented) before they became homeless; another 31% lived with friends or relatives.

Almost three quarters of the homeless have a high school diploma or better education level.

About 30% are employed either part time, full time, seasonally or sporadically.

Half of the survey respondents reported having at least one disabling condition; of those, two thirds reported having more than one.

There is no one primary cause of homelessness; in fact, there is a long list of causes. Collectively economic issues represent a large share, as do health issues.


Within the homeless community, there are four sub-populations that we can look at more closely: those experiencing chronic homelessness, families, youth and young adults, and veterans.  Let’s take them one at a time, starting with the chronically homeless.

Disabling conditions are far more prevalent among the chronically homeless than the rest of the homeless population. That includes mental health issues (including PTSD and TBI), substance abuse issues, general health issues, and physical disabilities.

73% of people experiencing chronic homelessness have been in jail or juvenile detention..

Among the chronically homeless there is still a variety of causes for homelessness, but substance abuse and medical issues are more prevalent — not surprising, given the statistics above.

Now let’s look at families. The pattern of causes looks very different: it’s much less about economic or substance abuse, and much more about domestic violence and broken families (with a slightly greater representation of health issues).

This is mirrored in the services that homeless families access.  Note, however, the low uptake of food services among homeless families.

Next, let’s look at veterans. Almost 13% of King County’s homeless are veterans — compared to 7% of the general population in the United States. 17.2% of King County’s homeless men are vets, versus 13.4% of all male Americans.

Given their military service, it should be no surprise that King County’s homeless vets have higher incidence of physical disabilities, chronic health problems, and most notably PTSD.

In fact, a recent study by the Government Accountability Office shows that the US military frequently neglects to test active service members for PTSD if they have been charged with misconduct — instead simply discharging them in a manner that prevents them from accessing VA benefits. So it’s also not surprising that only about 2/3 of the homeless vets in King County have accessed VA benefits — and that they have higher use of local health and mental health services.


Similarly, the causes of homelessness for vets, while also varied, have higher frequency of job loss and eviction, while a lower frequency of substance abuse.

Last, let’s look at youth and young adults (YYA).  28% of homeless YYA identify as LGBTQ — much higher than the homeless population as a whole, or the general population.

29% have been through the foster care system, and currently are either on probation or parole.

Given this, the causes of homelessness for YYA are exactly what you would expect: evictions, incarceration, and getting kicked out of the house by family or friends.


So what are the big insights to be taken from the report?

The first one takes some digging and re-arranging to see: how the city and county are responding to the homelessness crisis, and how well it’s working (or not).

Let’s go back to the first chart: the overall homelessness numbers.

The total can be split into two: those who are sheltered, and those who are not. By “sheltered,” we mean some form of public or private emergency shelter, transitional housing, or safe haven program (e.g.  for domestic violence survivors). It turns out the number of people sheltered in King County has also been tracked fairly accurately over the years independently of the One Night Count, since operators are required to report their numbers nightly. So here’s the breakdown:

You’ll note that all of the growth is in the unsheltered population. There has been no growth in the sheltered homeless population — in fact, there has been a slight decline. This is a critical point: despite all the money, time and effort spent, in January 2017 King County was sheltering fewer homeless people than it was in January 2014.

The evidence points to a failure in both the outreach and shelter systems. We know that 91% of the homeless would come inside if given a safe and affordable housing option. But — at least as of January 2017 — the King County system was not providing such an option. First, the survey points to failures in outreach; homeless people experienced many issues in trying to access services, and only 27% said they hadn’t experienced issues.

Even the most basic starting point, assessing and entering people into the Coordinated Entry system so that they could have informed and consistent access to services, has not been happening; only 14% of the survey respondents had been entered into the system.

For many homeless people, the existing shelters are worse than continuing to live on the street, for a number of reasons:

To be fair, since January there has been some progress: the new Navigation Team in Seattle has improved outreach, and new sanctioned encampments have been opened which adds some capacity — including in some new “tiny homes.” But new, better, more person-centered shelters, including the highly-touted Navigation Center, have been slow to open, which points to another problem: communities often (but not always) resist having homeless shelters and encampments in their neighborhoods, out of fear that they will bring crime, drug use, garbage and used hypodermic needles, and other urban blight into their neighborhoods. So while the city and county shoulder much of the responsibility for their inability to create new shelter capacity for the growing homeless community, the general population as a whole is also partly complicit.


The second big insight from the report, as we saw above, is that it’s not helpful to look at the causes of homelessness for the population as a whole. The real story is in the sub-populations: veterans, families, youth, the chronically homeless, and other demographic groups. There the differences in causes of their homelessness are much more pronounced, and they suggest specific interventions and solutions that will serve those people much better.  The corollary: a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing homelessness is unlikely to work well.


The third big insight: people who have experienced the foster care system are disproportionately represented in the homeless community.

In Washington state there is a program to help transition kids leaving the foster care system into independent living as young adults. Clearly it’s not working well; that may be the fault of the program, or simply that the foster care system itself damages kids too much for a transition program to compensate. In either case, this is one more way that our society is abandoning people (in this case, kids) and they end up in the homeless population. Our foster care system is deeply in need of reform.


The fourth insight is something we already know, but is worth reinforcing. The survey asked what services are needed to help homeless people get re-established in permanent housing.

The results clearly point to the one glaring problem in Seattle and King County right now: the affordable housing crisis. The fact that most of the homeless individuals here are educated and are working at least part of the time is a hopeful sign that we can eventually dig our way out of this homelessness crisis and get people both employed and housed. But until we start to catch up on increasing the stock of affordable housing, we can expect the homeless population to continue to grow.


The final insight: there are 1,914 homeless children under the age of 18 in King County. 237 of them are unsheltered. That’s right, in the year 2017 there are 237 children living on the street right under our noses. Seattle is spending $50 million a year on homelessness, and we still have 237 children out there in the cold tonight. That failure belongs to all of us: King County, the City of Seattle, our elected officials, our human services departments, and every single one of us who lets it continue by blocking the creation of homeless shelters, standing in the way of land use changes that would allow for more affordable housing, and not contributing to nonprofits that take care of the people our society has abandoned. There is no conservative or libertarian philosophy under which leaving 237 children to live on the street is defensible. And no city that proudly waves the flag of “progressive values” should find this even remotely acceptable. The first, absolute top, priority for the homeless response should be to have zero unsheltered homeless children in King County. Let’s fix that, then we can talk about what comes next.


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    1. me, or the city? 🙂

      The One Night Count is a federal requirement in order to qualify for funding targeted at homeless programs. Also, I think it’s a sincere attempt by local folks to create a “person-centered” system that addresses real needs as opposed to theorized ones.

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