Out on the One Night Count

I just went through something everyone should experience at least once in a lifetime: the One Night Count of the homeless in Seattle and King County. You may have heard the news already that in the wee hours of Friday, Jan. 23, volunteers found 3,772 men, women and children who had no shelter in King County, a 21 percent increase over last year. But you can’t really understand those numbers until you actually see where these people are sleeping.

One Night Count

Bill Hallerman, of Catholic Community Services, talks with Brian Callanan (left) and photographer Matt Peterson during the One Night Count.

Producer Susan Han and photojournalist Matt Peterson joined me as we connected with a group of volunteer counters led by Bill Hallerman of Catholic Community Services. He’s been doing the One Night Count for the past 15 years and cares deeply about his work. He took us into areas you might pass by every day and not even think about: under freeway passes, through public parks and around well-known downtown buildings. Within the first 15 minutes we started walking the streets, we discovered an entire tent city pitched in the dirt right next to a sign that reads “No Trespassing,” with more than a dozen people living there.

Car after car whizzed by, even at 2:45 in the morning (the count goes from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. to get a snapshot of how many people are sleeping outside). Rats ran away from our feet, and into some of the tents, as we walked through the dusty, dirty homeless encampment. Seattle has been a common spot for homeless people for years, but the numbers keep rising.

We found a few more people in different areas over the next hour. Some were on park benches, simply wrapped in blue tarps, trying to sleep on a rainy night. Others had more elaborate tent structures made of tarps, tape and rope. Bill told us he once found a man sleeping in a dumpster on a sofa that had been thrown away. Some of the homeless seek groups for safety. Others seek solitude.

The Seattle City Council is considering an encampment ordinance proposed by Mayor Ed Murray. The proposal would allow for more permitted tent encampments and fund additional shelter beds. We’re covering the issue on the Feb. 6 episode of City Inside/Out.

I encourage everyone to learn more about not just what the city is doing to address homelessness, but the reasons behind the approach city leaders are taking in an effort to reduce the city’s growing homeless population. The homeless aren’t just downtown. They can be found seeking makeshift shelter in every neighborhood, tonight and every night, right around the corner from where you live.

Brian Callanan is the public affairs host for Seattle Channel.