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Homelessness Surges In Seattle Area

caption: Crowds of homeless people often gather on the sidewalks of downtown Seattle near social-service providers.
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1 of 4 Crowds of homeless people often gather on the sidewalks of downtown Seattle near social-service providers.
KUOW Photo/John Ryan

The ranks of the homeless continue to swell in King County. An overnight count found 3,772 people living on the streets — a 21 percent increase since last January.

Hundreds of volunteers fanned out across the county in the wee hours of Friday morning to take count of the region's rising homeless population.

The annual one-night counts organized by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness understate the true extent of homelessness in the region. They don't capture homeless people couch-surfing in someone else's home for the night or those who have managed to keep their overnight sleeping spots in bushes or elsewhere hidden from prying eyes.

This year's count does show 1,138 King County residents sleeping in their cars; 732 sleeping in tents and homemade structures; and 321 sleeping in doorways. The volunteer counters also came across 375 homeless people just walking around between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. Friday morning.

Another 6,000 homeless people are estimated to have slept inside, in transitional housing for the homeless and in emergency shelters.

Homeless advocates say the region's response has fallen far behind the growing need.

Terrence Cohen has been finding shelter in the basement of Seattle City Hall for the past eight months. He said he moved to Seattle about a year ago because he heard there was a lot of work here.

"But all the jobs were fishing jobs up in Alaska," said Cohen, who is on disability for a spinal condition. "It's too physical for me."

While finding a job has been hard for Cohen, he said finding affordable housing is his main problem.

"It's very difficult to get into any kind of housing, unless you're alcoholic or drug addict," Cohen said. "I was on so many housing lists, it was ridiculous."

Cohen said he believes his situation will improve.

"Sometimes, you get frustrated because you're ready for things to happen right here, right now, to get off the streets, but at the same you have to take one step at a time," he said.

Homeless Evictions

Javier Chavez has been spending his nights in a cardboard box next to the railroad tracks by Safeco Field. He said he moved to Seattle from California a year ago and has struggled to find work since.

"Maybe next month, I move to Yakima," he said. "Work in the fields."

Chavez and a friend staying in a second box next to his received an eviction notice this week that gave them 72 hours to leave.

I asked Chavez about his plans for the night.

“Pues buscar donde dormir," he said — he would look for a place to sleep.

Do you know where? I asked. He said he didn’t know.

City of Seattle policy is to do homeless evictions compassionately, by helping people about to be evicted from Seattle's many illegal camps find better places to live.

But Chavez said nobody offered him advice or connected him with social services.

He asked if I knew where he might sleep. “Tu sabes?” he asked.

Sorry, no, I said. I didn’t know either.

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