Due to COVID-19, Spokane's annual homeless survey won't count unsheltered individuals, city says

click to enlarge Homeless people not using shelter services won't be counted in the 2020 homeless count - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
Homeless people not using shelter services won't be counted in the 2020 homeless count

This year, Spokane's annual homeless count won't include homeless people without shelter.

The federally required point-in-time count survey, to be held on Jan. 28, will only count people staying in homeless shelters or in transitional housing, the city says. That means hundreds of homeless individuals who are not in a shelter or transitional housing will be excluded.

The city says the reason for the change this year is to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Cupid Alexander, director of the city's neighborhoods, housing and human services division, says the decision was made with the safety of volunteers and homeless individuals in mind, adding that other communities have made the same decision.

"We use volunteers and some of them are elderly. We did not want to be responsible for those who had to go do the unsheltered count being in close proximity and possibly getting sick," Alexander says.

He added that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) doesn't mandate that unsheltered individuals be counted every year. Next year, Alexander says it should be different.

"We felt like this is the best path forward for this year," Alexander says.

This year's count will involve staff at shelters and transitional housing counting only the number of people using their services. But by not counting those outside of shelters, the point-in-time count will offer a more incomplete picture of how many people are unhoused in the community. 

The city says it will try to fill in that gap using data from street outreach teams that come into contact with unsheltered individuals throughout the year. With that data, Alexander expressed confidence that it won't impact the city's ability to apply for grants and other funding with the goal of addressing homelessness.

Typically, the point-in-time count involves events like Spokane Homeless Connect, which offered services and is used to count people experiencing homelessness. That event usually accounts for a large portion of those surveyed in the point-in-time count. Alexander says that will be a loss for people who may need those services, which he considers a bigger impact than people not being counted.

"Those events usually brought them together with service providers in a way that being disconnected cannot," he says.

Maurice Smith, a documentary filmmaker advocating for homeless people, says he's frustrated that the city won't count unsheltered people this year. He says the city didn't communicate enough with partners about this decision, calling that a "pattern of behavior."

"The point-in-time count will be inaccurate regardless of how they do it this year," he says.

While he understands the concerns about COVID-19, Smith says he knows that people would have volunteered to conduct the count and signed a waiver releasing the city of liability if needed.

"We could have easily put together two or three outreach teams of volunteers," Smith says.

Tija Danzig, senior manager for the community housing and human services department, says the city considered a "number of different options" for safely conducting the count this year. Ultimately, the city decided it would be difficult to get quality data without holding the events it usually does — and in consultation with health officials, those events were deemed unsafe. 

Additionally, the city pointed to instability at the Spokane Regional Health District in its request to HUD to forego the counting of unsheltered individuals. The request cited an "all-time high" infection rate in Washington, limited personal protective equipment, and concerns with the firing of former Spokane Regional Health Officer Bob Lutz, who was replaced in an interim capacity by Francisco Velazquez.

"There is an interim officer, but there cannot be an expectation of normal operations and support for our [Continuum of Care] and the [point-in-time] count during this transition," the letter said.

In an interview with the Inlander, Alexander says his department has had "great" communication with the health district on a consistent basis.

Still, Alexander says he knows there may be concerns about not counting unsheltered people this year, especially when it might be valuable to know how the pandemic has impacted unhoused individuals.

"The same questions you're asking are the questions we've asked ourselves, tons and tons and tons of times, because we know the perception is that just because we don't count them doesn't mean they're not there," Alexander says. "We're trying to be sure that we're using every reasonable resource that we have to safely, but accurately, get as best of a count as we can." 

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Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione is the Inlander’s news editor. Aside from writing and editing investigative news stories, he enjoys hiking, watching basketball and spending time with his wife and cat.