Count Us In – A Look at Youth Counts in Seattle and Portland

In cities across the country there was great energy and collaboration around strengthening the count of youth experiencing homelessness as part of the 2015 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Point-in-Time (PIT) count. From Miami to Seattle, providers created new partnerships and shared innovative methods to get to a better count. This was driven by a deep desire to generate more accurate demographic data of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness and ultimately to target resources towards interventions that are the most effective for the population.

Recognizing that youth are undercounted in the homeless street count that typically happens in the middle of the night, youth providers partnered with their local Continuum of Care (CoC) leads to expand the hours for when young people can be counted. Since most youth have hunkered down and are hidden away to stay safe by the time the street count starts, concerted efforts to conduct outreach to the youth and young adults prior to the count was key. Many communities also expanded survey questions to help get to a better understanding of where young people are staying, how long they have been experiencing homelessness, and what their unique needs and characteristics are.

While only those youth that are sleeping outside on the night of the unsheltered count are reported to HUD, expanding outreach to young people that may be staying night to night with friends and family helps providers and planners get a better picture of the youth that are in and out of shelters and frequent drop-in centers and meal programs during the day.

In 2013, HUD called for CoC’s to report unsheltered young people as part of the annual PIT count report and provided key guidance on how to do this well. Many communities have been working with mixed results to include youth in their PIT count for years. As a result, homeless youth providers and advocates also looked to a report released in July 2013 by the Urban Institute, called Promising Practices from the Youth Count Initiative to get ideas for ways to do it better. The report features nine youth count sites from around the country that tested methods for reaching and counting youth experiencing homelessness.

Recently, in Portland, Oregon, I had the privilege of sitting on a panel of youth experts at the West Coast Youth Convening to talk about how the youth count went this year. From Seattle down the coast to Los Angeles, communities — both rural and urban — set out to gather better data. Testing different approaches such as holding “magnet” events to bring young people to a count site and hiring young adults who had experienced homelessness in their past to help with outreach, led to better results. It was not surprising to hear that the most effective strategy for reaching young people is to include youth in the process of planning for and carrying out the count. Valuable partnerships with schools, juvenile detention facilities, libraries, police, faith communities, and local businesses were also critical to getting the word out and creating youth- friendly spaces for surveying to take place.

In Seattle-King County, the annual effort to count youth and young adults aged 12-25 who are unstably housed or experiencing homelessness is called Count Us In. This year was the fifth year Count Us In has been in operation, and the results found 133 kids unsheltered and 170 unstably housed. The January survey spanned two days and coordinated 71 partner locations throughout the county. They used a number of different approaches to ensure that sites were accessible, especially to youth of color and LGBTQ youth who are overrepresented in the homeless youth population, but do not always readily access services.

I was able to visit several of the locations to see how surveys were being administered, including a public library, a game van parked in a retail parking lot, and a church-hosted meal program where kids would be invited to stay overnight as part of an organized “sleep over”. It was exciting to see such a well-organized effort. A key take away from this year’s Count Us In survey is that even though the numbers increased by 6 percent from last year, the demographics and other characteristics of the kids remained similar from previous years. The consistency offers key information about the population — where they are coming from, how long they have been experiencing homelessness or in an unstable housing situation, and what may have attributed to their situation. Most importantly, it says that the work of ending youth homelessness is not insurmountable. As wisely stated in the Count Us In report: “the issue of homelessness remains one that we, as a community, can impact. Together we continue to work toward putting an end to youth and young adult homelessness, because no young person should have to sleep outside.”

You can view the Seattle-King County 2015 Count Us In Report and data here.


Katy Miller is a Regional Coordinator on the National Initiatives team at USICH. She is responsible for facilitating the implementation of Opening Doors in Alaska, California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Katy is based in Seattle, Washington.

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