Take the Next Step navigator Michael Lorio sat on an overturned container while speaking with Chris Olson from outside his waterlogged tent Tuesday afternoon. He was one of two men living between a straight stretch of railroad tracks and a northward bend in the Skykomish River who agreed to participate in the annual community survey on homelessness.

Only a light rain was coming down on the small encampment while they talked; heavy showers pummeled the area sporadically throughout the day. Olson was asked about his sexual orientation, how long he had been without a permanent home, whether he had a mental illness: the straight man had been without a permanent home since 2000 and does have mental health issues.

Getting to the secluded spot required a trek along rocky ground and across a high, narrow bridge — the same one where a homeless man was struck and killed by a train exactly one week earlier.

Monroe Police Sgt. Ryan Irving led the way. He explained engineers in the area knew Point in Time volunteers might be out walking nearby, and were asked ahead of time to slow down.

It wasn’t Olson’s first time participating in the federally mandated count. He became homeless after he was run over by a car nearly two decades ago. He has more than a dozen screws and pins in his body, and suffers from short and long-term memory loss.

The U.S. Navy veteran disclosed to Lorio he struggles with a mental health condition and major back issues. The interview was conducted while Olson sat in a tent filled with personal items. He said he wished there were more places to charge his cellphone. It has been hard to stay in touch with people.

Olson also said he would like a place to take an occasional shower. All of his clothing is constantly wet. He would prefer to stay warm and dry if given the option.

“Have you ever tried taking a bath in a freezing cold river?” he said.

Lorio, Irving and two volunteers then located another camp near the Lewis Street Bridge. The temporary shelters were vacant.

Lorio’s was not the only group that returned to TTNS reporting it was hard to find people, said the Drop-In Center director and PIT count organizer Janos Kendall. Many clients who stopped by the Monroe Covenant Church on Sams Street in Monroe for the coinciding resource fair and meals declined to participate in the one-day count.

By that afternoon it looked like East County organizers wouldn’t make their targeted goal, only turning in about a third of the questionnaires they’d expected to complete.

“Our total count was 50, the lowest count in our history of participating in the Point in Time (PIT) count, and although this is only a snapshot of one day, it absolutely does not come close to representing the homeless crisis in our area,” Kendall said. “This count would make it look that our homeless situation is improving a great deal, when in fact it’s not.”

It wasn’t just the weather working against the efforts that day.

The PIT snapshot gathers data on who is living unsheltered and why. It is used to identify trends. About five years ago, Snohomish County adopted a survey format. Questions are regularly updated and revised to reflect evolving information.

One such fluctuation was recorded within the past half-decade. Between 2011 to 2015, the number of sheltered homeless, unsheltered and precariously housed in Snohomish County steadily declined to less than 800. Since then, that number has spiked to nearly 1,000 people or more who said they didn’t have a place to stay the night before.

A longtime pastor, when Lorio discusses the causes of homelessness he usually brings up the Continuum of Care program. Snohomish County works to secure U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program funds to support services that help individuals and families get into permanent housing as quickly as possible, according to the county’s division of Housing and Community Services.

The results of the PIT count are one tool organizations employ to address the many barriers that keep people from swiftly reentering a stable lifestyle, Lorio said. He said he has never worked with a client whose causation for living unsheltered was not multi-faceted.

“Long term chronic homelessness is more often than not an indicator of the presence of co/tri-morbid conditions,” according to the 2017 PIT count report. “The complexities that these individuals present call out the need for flexible, collaborative approaches and higher levels of support for outcomes to be successful.”

Getting valid data is crucial, according to Robin Hood, grants and program specialist for the Snohomish County Human Services Department. Organizers often contact law enforcement and invite them to act as partners, so the results are as comprehensive as possible. It is requested no agencies ask people to leave a site leading up to the count, Kendall said.

During the 2016 PIT report nearly 24 percent of the 410 unsheltered surveyed wouldn’t say where their last permanent residence was, according to Hood. With that many people declining, it made regional migration trends a challenge to illustrate that year.

Snohomish County is broken up into four sections during the annual count. East County encompasses Monroe through Skykomish. TTNS headquarters has been the staging site for years. The organization took over leading the efforts in 2017. This year 77 volunteers were trained and went out in the field during two shifts.

“It was very successful last year,” Kendall said, “so the things we tweaked (this year) were very minor.”

Two recent deaths in the Sky Valley hit the homeless community hard, Lorio said. Trevor M. Young, 37, was struck by a train just outside Monroe on Jan. 18. Another man was found in a tent behind the old Albertsons on Oaks Street one day later; the Snohomish County Medical Examiner has yet to release his identity.

Both incidents contributed to why others were hesitant to participate in the count, Lorio said. He sees that heightened presence of fear and mistrust as a coping mechanism for trauma.

On top of that, Kendall and other organizers heard last Tuesday that Snohomish County Sheriff’s deputies had gone out to encampments throughout the county shortly before the date. Sheriff’s spokesperson Shari Ireton said the Office of Neighborhoods conducted operations no differently than it normally would because of the event.

Lorio said he believes homelessness is a human condition everyone is capable of experiencing. Often what keeps someone in that position is a belief about themselves. He remembers one client he worked with whose stepmother always told him he would become a meth addict, just like his biological parent. After hearing it enough, the client eventually thought he might as well try it. 

In other cases people are one bad choice or one negative life event away from losing everything, he said. The majority of people in the Sky Valley community are living paycheck to paycheck. He has only seen people be able to make lasting changes when given the chance to engage in supportive relationships and access services that show them another way to see themselves.

Homelessness is not an easy situation, Lorio said. It does negatively impact a community. The question is how to respond in a humane manner. He said he often asks someone if they want to be a part of a community that turns people away or turns toward those in need.