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Kent homeless count yields telling results

One night every January for the past three years, Kent resident Cynthia Tanis takes a last peek at her kids, bundles herself up and heads out to the streets of Kent as part of the One Night Count, an annual event designed to provide a snapshot of the city's homeless population.

This year's count took place Jan. 28 and 29 and Tanis, as usual, met with her team, got an area to search and headed out.

"Our area was over on Willis Street, just east of L.A. Fitness," said the mother of two.

Tanis, like the rest of the nearly 100 volunteers who fanned out through the Kent valley, spent her evening checking underbrush and looking for cars that may have people sleeping in them, as well as any paths or bedding. The volunteers go out in teams for safety and are trained to be as respectful as possible during the count.

This was the second year Tanis and her team worked that section of the city. Just like last year, the group counted no homeless sleeping in the area.

But throughout the city, teams of volunteer counters just like Tanis hit the streets, looking for homeless to try and get a number for those living on the street.

This year, according to Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, numbers of those sleeping outside across King County fell slightly, from 2,827 in 2009 to 2,759 this year.

In Kent, the number dropped considerably, from 193 last year to 60 this year. However, while Kent saw a decrease, other surrounding cities saw increases, such as Federal Way, where 116 were counted last year and 181 were counted this year.

"No community is an island," Eisinger said. "We're not surprised to see a certain amount of mobility."

Eisinger said the shift could be because of the threat of flooding along the valley floor, as well as the work done around the river - where many homeless set up camp in the past - may have forced some of those living in the valley to head uphill.

Kent Housing and Human Services Planner Jason Johnson said the number represents a "trend" and should not be taken as a definite number of homeless.

"We know it's not a very accurate number," he said. "It's a trend number. It lets us know if things are up or down."

With the economic recession continuing to worsen since last year's count, Johnson said he was "surprised" the numbers were lower this year. He also said part of the drop in Kent's count could be due to increased security patrols at an overflow lot for the ShoWare center, which was a place many of those living in their car would park for the night. He said it is likely that many of those people have found a new lot in which to park, potentially in Federal way, adding to their increase.

"Last year there wasn't security," he said.

Johnson also said while the outdoor count may be down this year, local agencies have told him that their numbers are way up, including the numbers of families who have to be turned away at shelters for a lack of space.

Johnson also said the Kent School District is reporting that the number of homeless children in the district went up 5 percent this year and that many families have moved in with family or friends or are now living together.

According to Eisinger, Seattle has conducted a one night count nearly every year since 1979, making the Seattle event the oldest in the nation. Kent was the first non-Seattle locality to join the count eight years ago.

"We have an amazing network in King County," Eisinger said.

Nearly 1,000 volunteers across King County turned out for this year's event. The count is conducted each year in the last week in January and has expanded across the country since it was first started in 1979. Today, the numbers provide a nationwide snapshot are used to help determine federal funding for homeless programs.

The numbers are also used to raise awareness about the plight of the homeless in our communities.

"We use this to do public education and advocacy," Eisinger said, adding that the numbers are always sent to Olympia to show legislators there is a continuing need for affordable housing.

And even though the number appears to be down, Eisinger said it was not yet a reason to celebrate

"Having that many people outside tells us this is actually still at crisis level," she said. "No matter how you slice it, 2,759 people is a huge number of people."

In addition to the outdoor count, Eisinger said numbers from shelters, as well as the turn-away numbers are all added together to provide a wider snapshot of homelessness. In 2009, the total number counted was 8,961 people.

This year's final numbers are not available yet, but both Eisinger and Johnson said programs were full all over the county and turn-away numbers also were creeping up.

Both Eisinger and Johnson, however, praised the work being done by the city of Kent and said the work of local agencies has helped to reduce the number of people living outside.

Johnson cited in particular the work of Catholic Community Services, Multi-Service Center and Sound Mental Health for the "great job" they have done.

"They've done really great, really inventive work to get people permanently housed," he said.

Eisinger called the work done by Kent an "important example" for the county and cite the city's year-round attention to the issue as being a help.

"I think in Kent people really understand something that other places may not acknowledge: That people who are homeless in Kent are our neighbors," she said.

For Tanis, the count is exactly that, a way to be involved in her community. She said she is happy to help, but it makes her sad to know that there are people sleeping outside in January. She is pleased that the numbers she helps provide could lead to increased housing, not just in Kent, but throughout the state and even the country.

"It's being local, but it affects funding for homelessness on a federal level," she said. "It feels good to be a part of that.

"It's become a tradition for me now," she said. "It's something I know I can help with every year."

For more information about the One Night Count or to see the numbers from around King County visit http://www.homelessinfo.org/

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