America’s first homelessness problem: Knowing who is actually homeless

The unhoused are often hidden. Seattle is testing a new method to find them.

Michelle and John Tirado had temporary jobs as security guards and lived in a trailer in a Seattle encampment. Michelle said it's not a home. “It’s a space where we survive,” she said. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
15 min

SEATTLE — Handwritten notes were everywhere, taped into car windows or tucked under windshield wipers or scrawled across van doors. They were public announcements and cryptic rants — tiny splashes of individuality amid the anonymity of garbage piles and ripped tarps surrounding the trailers and campers parked near the railroad tracks south of downtown.

“Sick sleeping do NOT wake up,” one on a camper said. “I have narcan spray,” said another. “DO NOT TOW MY HOME!” stated a third.

Toward the end of July, one more sign began appearing at the encampment. “Notice,” the warning from the city said. “Order to remove all personal property.” The area would be cleared July 26.

John and Michelle Tirado’s 17-foot trailer stood near a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The windows inside were blocked so they could sleep for their evening shifts as security guards at an abandoned foundry, both temporary jobs with no benefits. They had been living in the encampment for four months. When they arrived, they were sleeping in their GMC Yukon, an SUV. Later the couple found the trailer on Facebook for $1,700better than sleeping in the car, and more affordable than the deposit and first and last month’s rent needed for an apartment. But the Tirados couldn’t help feeling that they were bobbing between bad and slightly better, while still on a general slide into worse.

“Some people would count that as a home, but it’s not,” Michelle, 33, said of the trailer they would soon have to move. “It’s a space where we survive.”

“We are homeless,” John, 32, said. “We hate it.”

Until last year, the federal government did not always include people like the Tirados or the others living in trailers within sight of the sun-polished towers of downtown Seattle in its annual tally of the homeless, a reflection of what advocates, academics and policymakers say is a flawed methodology that underlies billions in spending on homelessness.

Getting that figure right has gained new urgency as rising housing costs and a persistent shortage of affordable housing mean more people have fewer options when it comes to shelter. Tent cities now sprawl across sidewalks, along overpasses and over green spaces in many major American cities. The visibility of homelessness has triggered a wave of municipal and state laws criminalizing it. Advocates also say violent confrontations between the housed and unhoused appear to have increased.

At the local, state and federal level, governments rely on annual estimates of the homeless population to direct billions of dollars in spending. But few advocates, academics or public officials believe those estimates are accurate. Compiled by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), they are technocratic best-guesses, hammered together using a handful of methods many believe are inadequate.

“It gives Congress a false picture of the true magnitude of the problem,” said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “We need to have accurate data if we are going to provide accurate solutions.”

For years, advocates have pushed the government to improve the annual count by broadening the official definition of homelessness and adopting new methods to count unsheltered populations. There are a number of proposals circulating. Until recently they have mostly been theoretical. Then, earlier this year in Seattle, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) decided to field-test a new method, which combined policy wonks and street organizers to capture populations that had been missed in HUD’s Point-In-Time (PIT) count, a key component of the federal government’s homeless population estimate.

HUD spokeswoman Shantae Goodloe acknowledged the difficulties inherent in the undertaking but defended the agency’s methods.

“Given this monumental task, it is likely that communities do not find every single person experiencing homelessness, but we are confident they identify most people, and this consistent counting effort allows an analysis of trends from year to year that help us gauge whether homelessness is rising or falling across the country,” Goodloe said. “The PIT count data is the only data source that collects data on our unsheltered population across the entire country.”

Goodloe also noted that there are support programs for families regardless of whether they fall into the official definition of homelessness. “Expanding the homeless definition does not resolve the reality that there are simply not enough resources for the high demand for people who live in precarious housing situations,” she said.

For the Tirados, the gap between policy and reality has meant painful choices.

As they spent their last nights at the encampment, they had no idea where they would go next. They did, however, know that they would not be joining their five children and John’s mother and sister at a local homeless shelter. When the family had arrived in Seattle, there were not enough beds for everyone to stay together at the facility. They had been split ever since and would remain apart until the Tirados found a place big enough that they could afford.

A housing emergency

On a Saturday morning in July, Marvin Futrell, 57, wheeled his car down the narrow lane where the Tirados’ trailer was parked. Around 55 other campers and RVs filled the street. He was doing his own informal count.

“Let’s just say one person lives in each. That’s 55 displaced people and probably more living in each one,” Futrell said as he rolled by the encampment. “But the system doesn’t recognize folks living in RVs as homeless.” He then glanced back at the image of the RV encampment shrinking in his rearview mirror. “The response that we have now isn’t enough.”

Futrell kept a map in his head of Seattle and King County, a shifting picture of where people without homes tended to gather. Some were places he’d spent the night himself during his years living on the streets. Other were floating communities he had come to know as an organizer, camps and tiny-house villages he had helped avoid police sweeps or wage legal battles with the city. Those experiences had now landed Futrell a position with the county’s homelessness response.

“We’re not treating an emergency like an emergency,” he said. “My work is to start treating this housing emergency like an emergency.”

He sees a more accurate count of the city’s unhoused as vital to any solution, but for more than a decade governments have relied in part on HUD’s Point-In-Time count, an annual tally of homeless people each year during one night in the last week of January. Volunteers and outreach workers walk the streets and count the number of unsheltered homeless individuals they spot. The results are combined with the total population of a region’s homeless shelters, as well as data from a region’s homeless management information system, a database that tracks services delivered to individuals experiencing homelessness. Other government agencies, such as the U.S. Census Bureau and the Education Department, also track homelessness, but HUD’s data is considered authoritative.

Congress approves and funnels out the majority of the country’s financial response to homelessness on the basis of these numbers. The PIT count was inaugurated in 2007 in part to see whether the federal government’s money was making an impact.

Over time, however, academics and advocates have criticized HUD’s approach. “The HUD data is just catching a fraction of the people,” said Samuel Carlson, the manager of research and outreach at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“It’s not the best measure, because it’s a count on one night only. But also communities end up doing it all different ways; there is not a standardized way,” said Jack Tsai, a professor and dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health in San Antonio, who has written on the topic. “We don’t even look at the per capita or proportion of the total community that is unsheltered. But this is the main benchmark we use every year.”

Some of the most pointed criticism about HUD’s methodology comes from a 2021 review by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which knocked the department for not providing local entities with examples of how to properly use data to supplement the PIT count. A 2020 GAO report found HUD does not “closely examine” the methodologies local entities are using to produce their counts, leading to confusion and inconsistencies between various agencies and general “questions about data accuracy.”

Since the GAO report, “HUD has published resources to assist communities with their sampling efforts and is in the process of working on additional resources to help communities conduct more accurate counts,” Goodloe said.

King County officials realized they were missing thousands of homeless individuals in their region when they began an overhaul of countywide data in 2018. They found a substantial gap between traditional homeless counts and the number of people who identified themselves as homeless when entering either the local homeless health-care network or the county’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Division.

Inflation is making homelessness worse

By comparing various databases, they found that 40,800 of the county’s total 2.2 million residents experienced homelessness at some point in 2020. Before the new analysis, the county had estimated that figure to be 33,500 based on data from its Homeless Management Information System. The PIT count total for 2020 was 11,751.

The report also determined that 7,300 people in the county who were experiencing homelessness had accessed county behavioral health or homeless health-care systems but were left out of the other databases.

Finding the people the survey missed became the mission of the KCRHA, which began operating in mid-2021 as a regional solution to what had long been a contentious local issue. The upheaval of the pandemic opened a door for a new approach, said Marc Dones, the authority’s chief executive.

“There are real methods. There are real ways to do this,” Dones said. “Asking people to go out on a night in January and be like, ‘I thought I saw a person in a tent’ is not a method.”

‘Soon we’ll be back together’

Michelle Tirado sat on the ground twisting a jack that was propping the trailer up. She and her husband were preparing to leave the encampment ahead of the July 26 sweep. She strained against the metal, her red-dyed hair flashing in the dull sun. The couple would need to move soon, and the encampment was chaotic as others prepared to do the same.

Rents are rising everywhere. See how much prices are up in your area.

The Tirados had arrived in Seattle in spring after living on a relative’s property in a nearby county. The family included the five children — ages 3 to 11 years old — John’s mother and his grown sister, who is disabled. Once the relative passed away, all nine headed to Seattle to find work. When they couldn’t immediately secure housing, the children and John’s mother and sister went to a local shelter, and John and Michelle Tirado hit the streets. Even after landing jobs working security at $15.50 an hour, they couldn’t put together the needed funds for rent.

“We’re trying everything we can to move forward, but it’s so tough with a family of nine,” John Tirado said. “The thing that I hate the most is that we put in a lot of hours at work so we can afford to get a place, so we will be able to afford rent. But you have to make like three times the rent, and have first and last deposit. It’s hard.”

By the end of July, being separated from their children was beginning to wear them down.

“I’m used to doing the mom thing; I’m used to cooking the kids’ meals,” Michelle Tirado said. The most difficult part was trying to explain the situation to them without letting on how desperate the circumstances were. “We say that it’s a journey that we’re all on and that soon we’ll be back together,” she said.

Their plan to move the RV away from the encampment ran aground when, as they were moving it, the axle snapped, rendering the vehicle essentially useless.

Rather than return to sleeping in the car, John and Michelle moved in with a friend until they decided what to do next.

‘Where are you sleeping?’

The key challenge with counting the members of a homeless population is that it is a community that often prefers not to be noticed.

The method Dones and the team set out to create aimed to be both a head count and a megaphone, quantitative numeration fused with an opportunity to record testimonies from the homeless community.

Their Maryland apartments were deteriorating. Then the rent went up.

The KCRHA’s team settled on a plan to set up 10 hubs at locations across the region, from libraries to food banks to health clinics. A handful of volunteers at each hub would be responsible for taking subjects through a series of questions about their experiences with homelessness:

Where are you sleeping?

During this time, what things or people have been helpful to you?

During this time, what things or people have not been helpful — or may have been harmful — to you?

Dones wanted the findings to be bulletproof to any criticism. The team estimated it needed at least 500 interviews from members of “historically marginalized communities who are not believed.”

Futrell sat in on the early planning meetings for the new count. He suggested where the hubs could go to best capture the rhythms of homelessness in the area. And he had a further suggestion that would help make or break the experiment: Staff the hubs not with just any volunteers, but people also experiencing homelessness.

More determined than hopeful

In March, the KCRHA team began conducting the new surveys across the county.

“Where are you sleeping?” they asked at a public library.

“How has your health affected your living situation?” they asked at a food bank. “How has your living situation affected your health?”

“How do you earn money now?” they asked at a young-adult shelter.

Alex Finch, 31, was staffing one of the hubs near the airport. He had been homeless for a handful of years, living in tent encampments and now in a Seattle tiny-house village. He volunteered as part of the KCRHA’s new homeless count because “I wanted to be one of the people keeping them honest,” he said.

But even Finch was surprised by what he was told. “Most of the complaints that I heard were attacks by people who were housed,” he said. “I talked with someone who had their RV assaulted with urine bottles. Another was the victim of attempted arson.”

Finch also said that it was clear many people he interviewed had not been counted in earlier PIT estimates. It was a realization shared by many who helped run the survey. They found that the new methodology helped coax people out of hiding.

“I interviewed people who actually lived in the woods,” said Owen Kajfasz, the KCRHA’s deputy chief community impact officer. “We were able to count people who literally were telling me, ‘I’ve never talked with anybody who works in homeless services before.’ ”

The new landlord was going to nearly double the rent. These Maryland seniors decided to fight back.

The volunteers also found that many people they interviewed were experiencing homelessness for the first time, including seniors who had maxed out their savings and could not pay Seattle’s spiking housing costs. Others were eager for the opportunity to record their stories.

“What the method told us alone is that there are a lot more people who want to be seen and be heard than the previous methodology allowed for,” Dones said.

Using the data collected from the surveys, the KCRHA was able to submit a number to HUD for its homelessness count — 13,368, compared with 11,751, the Point-In-Time count total for 2020.

Dones is confident the new methodology not only produces a more accurate numerical understanding of the homeless community, but also a vast bank of stories attesting to the experience of homelessness. The KCRHA will release a detailed analysis this fall.

No method is perfect, though. And two testimonies that will be missing from that new store of knowledge are those of John and Michelle Tirado.

The couple never made it to a hub to be interviewed and soon will be quitting King County altogether. They plan on pushing east, over the mountains cupping the Seattle area, to look for work.

“I wouldn’t say we’re hopeful. It’s more that we are determined,” John Tirado said. “If we haven’t failed yet, we refuse to start now.”

The goal is to get jobs, save money for housing, then bring the five kids and John’s mother and sister to wherever they land, be a family again. Until then, the couple will be living in a tent.

Story editing by Annys Shin. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Susan Doyle. Design by J.C. Reed.