Snohomish County Legal Services housing and debt relief attorney David Coombs talks with 
Ron Tehan during the resource fair held in conjunction with the Point In Time count Tuesday, Jan. 24, at the Covenant Church in Monroe.
Snohomish County Legal Services housing and debt relief attorney David Coombs talks with Ron Tehan during the resource fair held in conjunction with the Point In Time count Tuesday, Jan. 24, at the Covenant Church in Monroe.

Jessica Taylor lives in a trailer without running water near Sultan. She uses propane for cooking and heat. She made a visit to Monroe on Tuesday, Jan. 24, to grab some tarp for the trailer's leaking roof, and to participate in the Snohomish County Point In Time one-day count.

Taylor said she doesn't consider herself homeless. Prior to her current situation, she was in jail, at her mother's home, and before that, couch surfing.

Each year, the federally mandated PIT snapshot adds a little more material to the image of homelessness in Snohomish County by connecting with people like Taylor. Robin Hood, grants and program specialist for the Snohomish County Human Services Department, has led the county's PIT count for three years. It's difficult to gauge the homeless population's myriad demographics in only one day, he said.

Between 2011 to 2015 the number of sheltered, unsheltered and precariously housed in Snohomish County steadily declined to less than 800. On Jan. 28, 2016, 1,118 people in 878 households reported not having a permanent place to stay, according to last year's PIT report. In 2015, 966 people in 743 households reported not having a permanent place to stay.

The PIT is one tool used to identify trends, Hood said. About five years ago, the county adopted a survey format for the count. The questionnaire is regularly revised to pinpoint factors causing people to be displaced. Training volunteers is a key part of the process. They have to know why they are asking the questions they are, he said.

“It's hard to ask about someone's gender, someone's sexual orientation, if someone is transgender,” Hood said. “It's hard for someone to be asked that.”

Getting valid data is crucial, Hood said. If 1,000 people are surveyed, and only half express their sexual orientation, there is no accurate way to determine how those other 500 people identify. It makes it hard to know what services are needed in what parts of the county, he said.

The 2016 PIT report showed nearly 24 percent of the 410 unsheltered surveyed wouldn't say where their last permanent residence was, making county migration trends a challenge to illustrate that year.

Janos Kendall, drop-in center director at Take the Next Step’s cold weather shelter in Monroe, organized the count's east county volunteers for the first time this year. She contacted law enforcement, housing coordinators, shelters and local churches to offer resources on the same day.

“I wanted to make it a big event, to help bring more homeless in to get a better count,” she said.

Taylor said she guessed many people living without permanent housing in and around the Sultan area weren't even aware PIT was going to happen. She said she was glad to have the chance to come and take home some blankets and the tarp to repair her roof.

Deborah Wesley is staying at the Monroe Gospel Women's Mission. Her husband recently moved to Montana after the two were asked to vacate a local campground. She came Tuesday to get some clothes and legal advice.

“I think that there are people who don't want to be counted, so it’s hard to find them,” she said.

Monroe Police Sgt. Ryan Irving agreed to help lead PIT volunteers through the brush and woods for the first time Tuesday. He has been making regular, often weekly, visits to Monroe encampments. Irving said he is often accompanied by a social worker with Catholic Housing Services.

In the brambles behind the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Chain Lake Road, he called ahead to announce he is coming. The two encampments he entered were empty. As he walked, he explained that if the groups were forced to move, they would just relocate within the city. Building a rapport may give those who want a way out of their situation more of an opportunity, he said.

Melanie Ryan, who founded Beck's Place in Monroe, which supports community members living with pets in unstable housing situations, said the trick for communities will be learning “how to serve people with compassion and also keep the community safe.”

The count helps bring awareness to those who fall between the extremes of homelessness, such as those who are in transitional housing or emergency shelters, not only the chronically displaced, Ryan said.   In the Sky Valley, there are elderly people living on a fixed income that can't afford housing anymore, families that can't get together a deposit and first and last month's rent, women who can't leave an abusive spouse because their animal has no where to go, she said.

Hood said the county should have some preliminary numbers on the 2017 count by early this week. The final report is expected to be released around May, he said.