A slumped body in the passenger seat.
Foggy car windows.
A foot, maybe a blanket, pressed against the window.
These are signs of people living in cars.
“This car here, clearly, it looks like there’s been some breathing happening in there,” Daniel Hubbell says. Hubbell was leading a team of volunteers Thursday night for the One Night Count across King County.
His team tallies the car. Each sighting counts for two homeless people.
Volunteer Dusty Udris is on his team, and she’s determined to find one man in particular.
At dead ends, behind teriyaki restaurants and under the east side’s spiraling off-ramps, Udris pokes her flashlight around. She’s seen this old man around the Eastside.
“I’ve seen him early in the morning; I’ve seen him at rush hour in the evening. He’s really old; it’s really sad,” Udris says. “He looks 80. He’s got a long white beard, and he carries a big stick with water bottles.”
They’ve been in this spot for too long, though, so it’s time to go, but Udris keeps searching at other spots. This is her first time volunteering for the One Night Count, and she’s visibly upset.
Her friend Jude Mercer understands.
“I feel like I get to live up in my house in the suburbs and for the most part I don’t see them,” Mercer says.
There are a few homeless people the friends recognize from driving around Bellevue, however. What if they see one of them?
“I’m not sure how I feel about that,” volunteer Mercer says. “I might run into the guy we see out in front of the supermarket. And then I know where he goes at night.”
They keep moving. Their team is split into two cars; Hubbell drives one, and volunteer Jude Mercer drives the other.
There are rules to counting the homeless. Number one, be quiet, because voices carry more in the quiet of the night, scaring and waking people.
The two cars circle through vast shopping center parking lots and park and ride lots. They periodically bring their cars together and talk through the windows.
Finding the homeless isn’t always easy. While some are out in the open, others are hidden.
“We’re going to take a little jaunt down this trail here and see if we see any signs of folks living here,” Hubbell says at one stop.
As dawn approaches, Udris spies a small green tent in some bushes on the side of the road.
It’s made of tarps and wood and is the size and shape of a coffin. She thinks it’s her guy.
“Just on the side of the freeway area, just out in the open,” Udris says. “It makes me want to cry. I feel terrible. When people have no family or no resources. No help.”
The volunteers return to the church where they started and tally their numbers. They fax them to the One Night Count headquarters, at the Compass Center in Seattle. Those numbers would be joined by other tallies from the county’s shelters and transitional housing.
The figures would show that volunteers this year counted 4,500 people sleeping outside in King County – a 19 percent increase over last year. Organizers know this is inexact math, because new areas are added some years and more volunteers could mean more homeless people tallied. Also, seasoned volunteers could be more efficient; Udris says she has a plan for next year. But they say it is their most consistent tool for counting people who live outside.
At the church, Udris and Mercer scarf down French toast and eggs provided by the church.
“I didn’t think it’d be so hard,” Mercer says, reflecting on the night. “You’re driving around, and there’s so many places more that I know that people could be. And we had to work so hard to find all the little nooks and crannies.”
Udris says she’s glad she found the old man she was looking for.
“I really wanted him to be counted. Because he deserves to be counted. He’s a person, you know, and I see him all the time.”