Keeping the count

A tattered old sleeping bag, a bed of soggy leaves, a living room made of brush - these are the homes that welcome Se-attle's homeless. They have nothing but the kitchen sink, literally. Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske pointed to one lying rusted on its side beneath Interstate 5. Kerlikowske and hundreds of other volunteers noticed such sad details during Seattle's One Night Count of the Homeless starting at 2 a.m. and lasting through the early-morning hours of Oct. 22.

Started more than 20 years ago by Rev. Rick Reynolds, the One Night Count is a way to tally people living on the streets at a particular moment in time. The count seeks to help those working to eradicate homelessness get an accurate idea of the needs the area's transient population has.

During a surprisingly mild fall night in Seattle, more than 300 volunteers spread out around the city and its nearby suburbs to count the homeless living on the streets, in the alleys, under roadways and beside trees.

Before they went, armed with warm coats and bright flashlights, the volunteers were warned by organizers to stick with a partner, speak quietly and be alert. They were also told to not disrupt anything.

"We're walking into people's living rooms," Linda Hollett of Plymouth Housing Group said. "Literally."

While volunteers were fortunate that no rain fell, a crisp bite crept into the blustery wind and possibly drove some of the homeless indoors for the night. Despite the conditions, 2,062 people were found sleeping outdoors.

"The idea of the count isn't about being able to say 'this is the total num-ber in King County.' We know we don't come close," said Tara Connor, One Night Count Coordinator. "We want to see who's out there, see the patterns of homelessness, and to remind people that there are people sleeping out there every night and it isn't going away."

The One Night Count expanded this year from Seattle and its suburbs to include the East Side and White Center. With a 12 percent increase in the count from last year, the largest increases were seen in the suburbs, which reveals what some suspect to be a continual trend.

"We have a little bit of a rise each year and given the economic situation it's no surprise," said O'Connor. "But the number that is surprising is the increase in the number of homeless in the suburbs. I think people are leaving for space and room to sleep, where they won't draw attention to themselves."

And with construction clearing out previously known homeless haunts such as under I-5 near Tully's, many semi-sheltered areas were surprisingly empty.

Knowing the homeless

Members of King County, the Coalition for the Homeless, and other advocates have been searching for a way to eradicate homelessness in Seattle for years now. In fact, members from these organizations have worked for two years on a preliminary draft of their ten-year plan to dig to the root of the homeless problem and eradicate it.

"If the 10-year plan is embraced by people in authority and the community steps up and addresses the problem, we can and should eradicate homelessness," said O'Connor. "This is very much about homelessness [being] unacceptable, and we are no longer going to manage it so much as end it."

Until then, advocates insist that the One Night Count is the most effective way of intimately identifying those that need help.

"I really think it puts a face to the numbers," Linda Hollett, Plymouth Housing Group said. "It puts humanity back into it. This is a community issue, and [the count] is probably one of the only ways of measuring real numbers."

And reality is people like Lesie Kvinge, a woman who was homeless for two years and volunteered at the One Night Count.

Working at a steady job with a good home and good family, Kvinge found herself homeless after a heroin addiction progressively deprived her of everything. She took the streets as her new home, but after two years being homeless she applied to King County Housing Authority for placement at the Aloha Inn. Kvinge is now building herself back up, and she volunteered to at the count to help the homeless as a way of giving back to the community.

"I was there so I know what it feels like," Kvinge said. "Homelessness is so humiliating to someone who's been on top."

She seems proud of what she has pulled herself through and acknowledges that the One Night Count is a way to open people's eyes to the reality of a problem that many have been fighting against for years.

"When people are in their homes and have a shower and warmth, they don't think of what its like to be out there, and I think the count helps give people a dose of reality," said Kvinge. "This way it is brought out into the open so that it opens people's eyes to it."

Kvinge admits that the community still isn't doing enough to eliminate homelessness.

"Unfortunately we're still 12 percent above last year so the awareness isn't as strong as it should be," Kvinge said. "It's still very bad and we need to do more."

Despite such feelings, optimism was still the key sentiment as volunteers gathered to for the count.

"In 10 years we won't have to do a count because we are committed to ending homelessness," said King County Executive Ron Sims. "But until then we will count and count and count. We are going to defeat homelessness in the Seattle community. We're in a march to make a difference and change the culture that accepts homelessness to one that rejects it. Everybody will have a place to stay."

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