In the early hours of the morning of January 24, I once again joined with hundreds of other volunteers here in Seattle and King County as we fanned out across the region to count the number of people who are homeless in our communities.
In the early hours of the morning of January 24, I once again joined with hundreds of other volunteers here in Seattle and King County as we fanned out across the region to count the number of people who are homeless in our communities. Our work mirrored similar counts done by thousands of volunteers across the nation. The count was conducted between 2:00 and 5:00 a.m., because those we encounter at this time wandering the streets, or asleep in a doorway, or riding the bus all night are most likely those who have no place to call their home.
At the Gates Foundation, we focus much of our local work on ending family homelessness in Western Washington. The data as reported by the state is promising: Since 2007, the numbers suggest that the number of families who are homeless across the state has decreased by 29.2%. In King, Pierce and Snohomish counties – which are the focus of our efforts – family homelessness decreased 24.4% between 2012 and 2013. While many argue that these numbers represent a significant undercount of those who are homeless, our local data reflects some of the most promising decreases in the nation.
But when I was out on the street encountering homeless people in the middle of the night, I realized that our work won’t be done until the numbers approach zero.
In my daily job, I frequently encounter people who believe that we will never end homelessness in America. If, by saying that, you mean that there will always be a mom who must grab her kids and flee into the night from an abusive spouse, or a family that loses their housing as the result of an economic or health crisis, I can’t disagree. But what I mean by ending homelessness is a little different: We can, and will, get to the point in this country when homelessness is relatively rare, short in duration, and easily resolved. That means that fewer families will become homeless, the length of time they are homeless will become shorter and shorter, and pathways to housing stability won’t be hard to find.
We are already making progress on these fronts. Coordinated Entry systems are creating identifiable pathways to assistance, and can prioritize those with the greatest needs. Rapid Re-Housing is a promising approach that moves families more quickly from crisis to a permanent home. Tailored services – including linkages to better jobs and career paths – are helping families use housing stability as the springboard to self-sufficiency.
I faced a busy workday on Friday, after being out on the street all night. I was tired all day. But I only had to wander the streets one night a year. Many people who are homeless have to do that every night. They face days no less busy than mine; being homeless is a full-time job in and of itself. The challenge of staying alive has to be far more difficult than what I get to do every day.
The exhaustion I face after the Point In Time homeless count serves as a poignant reminder to me that our work will not be complete until I can say, at the end of my one night a year on the street, that I didn’t see anyone I could identify as homeless.
David Wertheimer is the Deputy Director of the Pacific Northwest Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, as well as the Board Chair of Funders Together to End Homelessness. Find him at @DavidWSeattle.
Photo credit: Gates Foundation.