Photos by Karen Ducey
On the steps of City Hall Thursday, as rain threatened, volunteers banged a gong — one strike for every person sleeping on the streets of King County. It’s an annual tradition and one that has grown longer every year as more people find themselves without a home.
Passersby took turns striking the gong until the count reached 5,485, the number of people living without shelter in the county. The number was just released the day prior, a number 980 higher than the year before.
The gong’s sound, hollow and metallic, echoed in the lobby of City Hall and, likely, all the way into the offices of elected officials on the building’s west wall. It’s an intentional intrusion of sorts. “People sleep in the streets without being noticed,” said Neil Lampi, a field organizer with Real Change, the weekly newspaper that employs the homeless and low-income people.
But a gong being struck persistently over an entire morning and into the afternoon does not go ignored.
“If it disrupts their day,” said Tiffany McCoy, also with Real Change, pointing toward the windows of the Seattle City Council and the mayor, “I dig it.”
The number of people without homes continue to rise, even as the city and county pour resources into possible solutions. Although the methodology of the annual county tally changed this year, the reality is that this year’s number is higher regardless of how you compare the totals. Because for all the work being done to move people out of homelessness, more and more people are replacing them at a pace faster than either the city or county can catch up to.
“As fast as we’re getting people out, people are coming in,” said Adrienne Quinn, Director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services.
Still, as high as the number appears, Carl Nakajima, a vendor with Real Change, believes it’s still low. People move around too much, he said, interrupted every two seconds as the gong was rung. And the counters likely missed some places where they surely would have found more unsheltered people, he added.
Meanwhile, as the gong ringing continued outside City Hall, authorities were removing a collection of RVs in an empty lot across town near South Park. The RVs were home to dozens of people, a number estimated to between 30 and 60. According to Julie Moore with the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, the RVs had moved in after a lock on the WSDOT property had been cut several weeks ago. Now the space was being cleared to be used for storage for an upcoming I-5 construction project.
At the site, people hurriedly tried to fix up their cars and trailers and pack up belongings. Daniel Kisch, a former construction worker, has been living out of his ’81 Winnebago and wasn’t sure where he’d move to next. Further south, he guessed.
The eviction, said homeless advocates back at the gong ringing, is proof that the city doesn’t have a clear plan for how to tackle the issue of homelessness.
The ringing continued. Pedestrians walked past and saw a nearby sign: 5,485. Some people paused, taking in the sound and its meaning, and then moved on.