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Annual Homeless Count Focuses Beyond The Numbers

In the pre-dawn hours this Friday, hundreds of volunteers will fan out across King County to look for people sleeping in alleys, parks, shopping centers and city busses. The effort is part of the county’s annual One Night Count, which aims to get an annual head-count of people who are homeless.

From 2:00 to 5:00 a.m., volunteers will traverse the same terrain as years past, from Shoreline to Auburn and from the Seattle waterfront to the eastside suburbs. The lead organizer, Alison Eisinger, estimates nearly a thousand volunteers will help with the count in the streets, in shelters and at the headquarters where numbers are tallied.

She says volunteers come from all walks of life, but a common cause draws them together for this night. “They are doing this because they see that homelessness is an unacceptable shame in our wealthy, clever, capable country,” Eisinger said.

Eight years ago, Eisinger participated in the One Night Count as a volunteer. It changed her life. A year later she was hired as the executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which manages the annual count.

By conducting the One Night Count, King County can qualify for more than $20 million in federal funding for homeless services.

Eisinger says another big reason for this overnight event is to draw back the curtain on homelessness in our area. “So that people who don’t necessarily think about this issue on a daily or nightly basis have the opportunity to experience this," Eisinger said. “And so that our elected officials and decision makers who come as guests on the One Night Count hold these images and the people who are experiencing homelessness squarely in their minds.”

Last year, volunteers found 2,594 people living outside without shelter. Eisinger said the actual number may be much higher since they only count people who are easily visible and on public property. She said many homeless people prefer to sleep in hidden places as a way to stay safe.

The 2012 One Night Count also found another 6,236 people staying in shelters or transitional housing, which Eisinger said tend to be full every night. Altogether, the county’s 2012 homeless count was about 3 percent higher than the previous year.

Eisinger says more winter shelter space is available this year, so she hopes to see a lower count of people in the streets. She’ll find out Friday morning, after volunteers return with the tally sheets in hand and perhaps a different picture of homelessness in their mind.