Understanding the 2018 Point in Time homeless count

Yesterday, King County released a report with statistics from its annual “Point in Time” count of homeless people living in the county. The 140-page report is an ocean of data and charts. But if you look closely, you can see the story of what’s happening to the homeless population — as well as the city and county’s response.

Let’s start with a quick refresher on what the Point in Time count is, and isn’t. The annual count of homeless people (also known as “Count Us In”) is a requirement, attached to federal funding to address homelessness. It was conducted county-wide on January 26, between the hours of 2am and 6am, by 609 volunteers as well as 206 paid “guides” with past lived experience of homelessness to help ensure that the volunteers don’t overlook homeless people who aren’t in obvious places. They also counted homeless youth and young adults in a separate process during the day on January 25.  It’s not a perfect exercise in that it doesn’t find and count 100% of the homeless, but it’s generally well-executed and it gets better every year.

After the one-night count, a team then follows up to conduct a more in-depth survey with a subset of the homeless population; this year they collected 1,056 survey responses.

There are three notable limitations to the study that are worth keeping in mind:

  • It’s a point in time, not an annual tally, so it tells us the size of the homeless community on that one day in January, but it doesn’t tell us how many people experience homelessness in King County in any given year — a much higher number. It wouldn’t count someone who became homeless in February and landed back in stable housing six months later.
  • The survey is a sample of the total population, so it has a margin of error, and particularly when you look at small sub-populations within the homeless community, the error grows.
  • Much of the data is self-reported. Having trusted guides and volunteers increases the likelihood that people will give true information, but answers weren’t verified with other sources.

OK, let’s dive into an overview of the results. The team counted 12,112 homeless individuals, an increase of 469 people or 4% over 2017. Just over half of them were unsheltered, an increase of 5%.

There were slightly more people in emergency shelters and sanctioned encampments, and there was a significant drop in people living in unsanctioned encampments as well as transitional housing and safe havens. But there was a startling increase in the number of people living in vehicles (we’ll drill down on that later).

In most parts of the King County the homeless population increased, but in the southwest part it dropped significantly.

There was a noticeable increase in homeless people aged 25-40, and an equally significant drop in those 41-60.

For the most part, the race and ethnicity of the homeless population didn’t change much year to year; however, the numbers for Native Americans dropped from 6% to 3%, and it has raised concerns with the methodology that might have under-counted Native Americans. Black and African- American people are still significantly over-represented in the homeless community versus the general population, as are Hispanic/LatinX people and those of multiple races, while whites and Asians are under-represented (though still the largest sub-population).

A third were experiencing homelessness for the first time, a number largely unchanged from last year. However, an increasing number have been homeless for more than a year.

Just over half have previously been in the criminal justice system, though the vast majority were not on parole or probation at the time of the count.

The data continues to debunk the myth that homeless people are moving here from other locations. In fact, the year-over-year trend is just the opposite: this year, an even larger fraction of the total homeless population reported that they became homeless here in King County, and a smaller portion came from out of state.

A much larger fraction said that they had grown up here, and a much smaller fraction had just recently moved here.

In aggregate, where people were living prior to becoming homeless and the causes of their homelessness didn’t change much from year to year.


That’s the big picture. But there are equally interesting stories for specific demographics within King County’s homeless community.

Black and African-American people. You probably saw that while still over-represented, the percentage of the homeless population that is black or African -American ticked down a couple of percentage points this year. Here’s another interesting data point: a higher percentage of that subgroup (roughly two thirds) is sheltered than any other race or ethnicity; the numbers are close for native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, but no other group is even close.

Those two facts are related: those who get sheltered have the highest success in exiting from homelessness, because it stabilizes them enough to allow them to focus on dealing with all the other issues that homelessness brings on, on getting and staying employed, and on finding permanent housing.

Families with children. The number of people in families with children (at least one adult and one child) decreased by 7% between 2017 and 2018.

The vast majority of the decrease is  due to getting younger parents — under age 25 — off the street.

But there are still 1450 children under the age of 18 who are homeless in King County. Nearly all of them (and their parents), however, are sheltered — a minor victory that we can celebrate, even if there is still a long way to go in getting them all into permanent housing.

The bad news, however, is that there are more homeless black families than a year ago. That may partially explain the earlier statistics showing higher utilization of shelter among homeless black people, but it’s a very worrisome trend for black families that needs closer attention.

Another worrying trend: an increase in domestic violence experienced by homeless families.

Not surprisingly, the survey also shows a big spike in domestic violence as the cause of families becoming homeless.

Homeless families use a wide variety of services, but transitional housing is a big one. Clearly this is not accidental: this is a programmatic approach to addressing homeless families led by organizations such as Mary’s Place.

More good news: homeless families are having an easier time accessing services — though language barriers are an increasing issue.

This is what a focused response that works looks like: people are off the streets, they are sheltered, they get into a transitional housing program, and they exit the homeless system.

Youth and young adults. The number of unaccompanied youth and young adults stayed flat at around 1,500; however, a slightly larger portion of them are over 18.

A larger share of this group identified as LGBTQ+ this year.

One third reported having a history in foster care, and “aging out of foster care” spiked as a cause of homelessness. Youth aging out of foster care in Washington state have access to a set of programs specifically to help them transition to living independently, so the fact that the system is failing them is doubly worrisome.

Across the board, unaccompanied youth and young adults saw greater access to services, and in particular transitional housing. That should lead to greater exits from housing; unfortunately, a “point in time” survey can’t tell us what the exit rate is, or how much of it is offset by an increase in people becoming homeless. In all, the system for youth and young adults is still not yielding big successes.

Veterans.  This is a high note in the survey results: the number of homeless veterans decreased dramatically.

It’s actually more reinforcement for the “housing first” principle: while both the sheltered and unsheltered veteran populations decreased, the sheltered population decrease much more.

Not surprisingly, the age of the homeless veteran population roughly matches up with the eras when large numbers of young people went off to war.

More surprisingly, there are more female homeless veterans here than there were last year: 53 last year, 92 this year.

There is a lot of shift in the causes of homelessness for veterans this year.

And equally a fair amount of shift in the health issues they are grappling with.

That suggests that as a focused effort to help veterans is spinning up, it may be leaving some people behind — potentially the ones with the more serious health issues, and the women. But there isn’t enough data here to reach that conclusion; more study needs to be done here. The good news is that veterans are reporting more access to services, so hopefully the decrease in homeless veterans will continue.

The chronic homeless. This, unfortunately, is not a good story. The population of chronically homeless went up 28%.

The demographics of the chronically homeless population looks very different than the rest of the homeless population: it’s more male, older, whiter, and it has more serious health conditions.

They have had more involvement with the criminal justice system, and more frequently they report drug use as a cause of their homelessness.

They use more services, but they also have more issues accessing those services. and the services they are accessing mostly aren’t the ones that will help them to exit from homelessness.

This is a big failure of the system: a group of people with unique demographics who have been in the system a long time and aren’t getting what they need to get out.

And finally: people living in vehicles. As I said at the beginning, there has been an enormous spike in the number of people living in vehicles this year: 46%.

51% of them are living in RV’s — up by nearly 900 people over the last year.

The “vehicle resident” population is predominantly white and middle-aged. The big jump in vehicle residents aged 25-40 aligns with the overall trend we saw earlier of more homeless people in that age range.

Their health conditions look generally the same as the homeless population as a whole, though with fewer chronic health problems.

For more of them, homelessness was a result of economic issues.

Other than use of safe parking sites (which only 20% report using), they access the same services as everyone else, and have fewer issues accessing them.

By its own admission, the city and county have largely punted on trying to address the vehicle-resident community. As with the chronically homeless, none of the services they are accessing are the ones that will help them exit from homelessness.  There is much that could be done here. This is one area where I wish the report went into more detail: what part of the city they are residing in, how long they have been homeless for, what their employment status is. Those are all key questions that would help our local government figure out how to help these folks.


A few other topics pop out of the report that are worth mentioning:

Access to services. The state and federal government have not stepped up their help — at least in terms of direct assistance to homeless people.

Despite an increase in the number of people completing a Coordinated Entry assessment, actual access to services among the homeless population is way down — except for hygiene services..

This is despite reports from homeless people that they are having slightly less issues accessing those services.

It looks like there’s a significant disconnect between the services being offered and the ones that homeless people think they need to actually exit from the system.

Employment.  The number of homeless people who are employed took a big drop. The survey question got tweaked this year so there’s a bit more granular information, but the picture is bleak: only 20% are employed, and only 5% full-time employed.

Now perhaps there’s a silver-lining: this may mean that once people get a job, they are exiting homelessness much more quickly. And we certainly saw earlier that losing one’s job is a significant cause of homelessness. But if that’s true, then the homelessness response must be about two things: affordable housing AND jobs. And we’re not paying enough attention to the second one. And the head tax opponents would go farther and argue that taxing jobs to pay for the homelessness response is counterproductive (I don’t think there is enough data to reach that conclusion, but it’s worthy of further analysis). Minimally, though, it looks like there are two essential components to exiting homelessness: affordable housing, and jobs. And our current homeless response ignores jobs.

Education.  This one chart jumped out at me.

It’s not entirely surprising, but nonetheless stark: the best insurance policy against homelessness appears to be a college degree. A high school diploma doesn’t cut it anymore. A logical conclusion would be that in today’s job market, a college degree is a the minimum bar for steady employment.

So what are the big take-aways from the Point in Time report?

  1. There are lots of things in motion, and lots of churn in the system. Many people are exiting homelessness, but many people are entering. We need to be clear on who is coming in, who is exiting, and who is stuck in the system.
  2. There are very distinct sub-communities within the homeless population, with their own demographics and their own specialized needs. Where the homeless response customizes a solution for targeted group, we can see significant progress, like with families and veterans. Where it offers nothing, or the wrong thing — like for vehicle residents and the chronically homeless — the situation just gets worse.
  3. There are two keys to moving people out of homelessness, the same two that cause much of homelessness in the first place: affordable housing and jobs. We need to be addressing both.



  1. Really, your executive summary analysis is going to take an hour to go through. But, thanks it must have taken quite a while.

    1. I never said it was an executive summary! If that’s what you want, read Vernal’s piece in the Seattle Times, or the executive summary in the report. Rather, I thought there were several important insights that needed to be discussed and I wanted to bring them out. And yes, it took a day and a half to write.

  2. Jobs, yes, but also living wages, and jobs appropriate to the skills and education of the people who need them. Many of the folks I meet in authorized camps would work if there was a job they could do, given their disability, lack of transportation, criminal record, etc. And even if they get a job, they still could not afford market rent. Just as we need subsidized housing to fill gaps in the housing market, we need subsidized jobs to match the needs of the poor. Universal Basic Income and single-payer healthcare would solve a lot of problems.

    1. Universal healthcare, certainly. I’m glad to see folks looking at universal basic income, but we’re far from understanding what that would mean, and the effects it would have on both taxation and inflation. We should be talking more about Alaska in that context.

  3. Let’s add access to quality treatment and make it “the top three”. Figure 27 shows lost job (30%) as the number one self-reported reason for homelessness. With a King County unemployment rate at 3.9% and Seattle unemployment rate of 3.6%, we should consider the possibility that drug/alcohol addiction and resulting behavioral and health issues is one reason why people lost their job and became homeless. I want to see King County / City of Seattle work together to provide access to treatment whenever a person is ready for it.

    I would like to understand more from King County Public Health about how they are providing treatment on demand and behavioral health care.

    From November 2017, “King County is moving toward treatment on demand throughout the entire behavioral health treatment system. Developing this model for outpatient care is a significant first step. When people are able to get treatment when and where they need it, they are less likely to cycle into crisis. Treatment before a crisis occurs benefits the individual, their family and the whole community.”

    It sounds good but we do need to see these systems come together effectively to help people in King County and the City of Seattle.

    Source of quote: https://www.kingcounty.gov/elected/executive/constantine/news/release/2017/November/20-homelessness-behavioral-health.aspx

    1. Be careful not to broad-brush the homeless community. If you look at the data for families, drug use is not a significant issue, but job loss is. Your point may be valid for some populations, but not others. And yes, treatment for substance abuse and mental health is severely lacking still. The state just put some extra money into that, to try to help.

  4. Thanks for putting together this thorough and fascinating analysis.

    Not to nitpick but there’s one place where you appear to have the wrong chart. (“There is a lot of shift in the causes of homelessness for veterans this year.”)

  5. Unemployment is at a historic low. The people who lose their jobs, despite being competent workers, and are finally unstable could probably benefit more from a diversion program that helps them get past the income gap before they get the next job. Mary’s Place has some sort of diversion program but I don’t know the details. The Millionaires Club is a jobs program that trains and places people who need job skills, experience and recommendations, which sounds like the sort of program you are talking about. Hundreds of their workers have been able to find housing, which I think proves your point.

    I was also taken with Dale Sperling’s (OneBuild) efforts to provide inexpensive, affordable housing and dismayed by the project’s demise. From Danny Westneat’s 6/1/18 Seattle Times column: “The homelessness issue just isn’t solvable without cheaper housing,” Sperling says. “There’s got to be something between a tent and a $300,000 apartment. Otherwise it’s a certainty there will be more and more people living under bridges.”

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