Volunteers, former homeless take to streets for point-in-time homeless count

Editor’s note: This is part three in a series on homelessness in the region.

Volunteers took to the streets last week in a county-wide effort to tally and survey the homeless — everyone from men pushing a shopping cart along the sidewalk to a mother forced to live in her car with her kids.

And that was the message, strongly, from one guide who participated in the Count Us In event in the early hours of Jan. 27. The guides were current or former homeless individuals, and were paid $15 an hour to participate.

“With homeless people, it’s ‘we’,” said the woman, who asked to be mentioned by her first name, Lorraine, only. “It’s a mother, it’s a son, it’s a daughter, it’s grandchildren, it’s you. It’s not just people who enjoy being out on the street.”

Lorraine was a Bellevue resident for many years, living in an apartment near the downtown area, before her mother’s health took a turn for the worse. She lost her apartment and nearly everything she owned, and over the span of a few months, was on the street.

Now an evening client at The Sophia Way, a Bellevue women’s shelter, Lorraine spent several hours searching and counting homeless persons with two other counters in a large section of Bellevue.

Kavya Dharmarajan, Development and Communications Director at The Sophia Way, was among the three-person search team for an area stretching from I-405 to Lake Sammamish. The team received a map of the area a day prior to the count, and Dharmarajan spent the day scouting for ideas.

“The coolest part of our experience was that it was my own neighborhood,” Dharmarajan said. “I literally scouted outside of my house … I was very familiar with the neighborhood, but it was interesting to look at it in a different way than I normally would.”

Many teams on the Eastside, depending on the area they were assigned, found vehicle residents, or ‘car campers,’ were common. Some search areas included known hot spots like bridges and isolated corridors, but homeless activity can be more difficult to spot in residential areas.

“Those areas don’t have the infrastructure where homeless can survive unless they have a vehicle,” Lorraine said. “Usually, there are things packed into a car with long-term homelessness. It’s easier to tell, but honestly, some have tidy (cars) and you can’t see them. Those are the exception.”

Guides led volunteers through neighborhoods and behind grocery stores, through industrial areas and down bike paths. Police and parks staff lent a hand as well, helping volunteers to spot signs of homelessness. Several city officials, including Kirkland City Councilmember Penny Sweet, councilmembers from Redmond and Sammamish and city staff from Issaquah, participated in the count.

“It’s a visual census,” said Sara Baker, the area lead for the Eastside portion of the count. “But we use the opportunity to not just get a hard number, but also to understand ways in which people are experiencing homelessness and ways people are living outside. There’s a tally sheet with options for tent and vehicle residency, and (the teams) tick off those marks.”

Baker said around 100 volunteers showed up to help with the Eastside portion, and given a change in the methodology of the count — previous years didn’t include statistics additional to the hard number of homeless persons and focused more on hot spots — the coverage area was larger and more exhaustive.

The changes also mean a hard number wasn’t released following the morning of the count, as in previous years. Felicia Salcedo with All Home, the organization behind the count, said a report would be released in the spring including information on those in transitional housing, youth homeless statistics and other numbers.

Volunteers participated in online and in-person training, and got a quick refresher the night of the count on issues like safety and privacy at Bellevue Presbyterian Church. Teams then spent three or four hours scouring sections of Eastside communities, all returning without any safety incidents, and most with smiles on their faces, Baker said.

“It was a good count,” Baker said. “There were a lot of changes made the night of deployment, a new experience than it has been in the past. I’m so grateful to every person who volunteered for their patience and flexibility. It’s a big job. You would think that no one would sign up to go counting at 2 a.m. on a cold night in January, and to have over 100 people sign up to do that is remarkable and it says a lot about Eastsiders as a community.”