People sleeping unsheltered in Seattle last night: 2,942.
The number of people sleeping unsheltered in Seattle last night: 2,942. Ansel Herz

Early this morning, volunteers fanned out across Seattle and King County to count the number of people sleeping in tents, doorways, vehicles, and parks or otherwise unsheltered.

In a county that has declared a state of emergency because of homelessness, volunteers found a significant increase: 19 percent more people were sleeping unsheltered in King County last night than during a similar count at this time last year.

In total, volunteers counted 4,505 homeless people in King County, 732 more than last year. Of that total, 2,942 people were counted within Seattle, which is 129 more than last year. The county-wide number accounts for a 19.4 percent increase and Seattle's share rose by 4.6 percent. Last year's numbers were also a double-digit increase over the previous year. The agencies who organize the one-night count have not yet released last night's totals for shelter and transitional housing. Today at City Hall, advocates will ring a gong once for each unsheltered homeless person. That began at 9 a.m. and is expected to take until about 1 p.m.

In response to rising homelessness, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, the Seattle City Council, and King County Executive Dow Constantine have increased shelter space, but are still struggling to meet the need. The city has also continued to clear illegal tent encampments.

Mark Putnam, the director of All Home, formerly the Committee to End Homelessness, says organizers "definitely saw a real trend" of more homeless people in Federal Way, Kent, Renton, and other parts of South King County, where he says about 50 percent of this year's increase was found.

Here's the breakdown of where the 4,505 people were counted:

A breakdown of last nights count from the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness
A breakdown of last night's count from the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness

In Seattle especially, those numbers are probably low. Because of a recent shooting in an encampment near I-5 in Sodo known as "The Jungle," Seattle Police recommended that organizers not count in places under the freeway and in nearby greenbelts, according to organizers. Because areas under freeways are typically home to "many people," said the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness in a statement, "it is impossible to know how the total might have been different had it been feasible to count in those areas."

Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said in a statement, “This is surely what an emergency looks like."

“One group of volunteers returned this morning and described seeing a couple with their three-month-old baby living in a tent," Eisinger said. "Others reported seeing a group of young people in sleeping bags, and a family with young children in an RV. One team spoke with a man in wheelchair who described having been homeless for five years. A law student noted that his team saw a memorial to Stacy Fisher, a homeless woman who was murdered under the Magnolia Bridge last year."

All Home's Putnam said the numbers aren't a surprise but are still a concern as the city and county struggle to get attention—and money—from the state and federal government.

"It's not just Seattle. It's down the West Coast; it's in other big cities," Putnam told The Stranger this morning. "We feel like this deserves at least a question on one of these Republican or Democratic presidential debates. You don't hear anything. We feel like we just need to keep elevating the crisis that we see."