SEATTLE (Christian Examiner)—Just days after King County made national news when two homeless residents were killed and three injured during a shooting in Seattle's famed "Jungle" homeless encampment, county residents discovered the frustrating reality that homelessness had jumped by 19 percent during the past year.
A homeless count administered by a coalition of local government, nonprofits and advocates working together "to make homelessness rare, brief and one-time in King County" counted around 4,505 men, women and children living on the county's streets.
Jeff Lilley, the president of the Seattle Union Gospel Mission (UGM), says the recent murder should remind those who care about the homelessness issue of the urgency of their task.
"When you have someone out there in a vulnerable position and someone comes up and murders them, you're saying, 'This is one of the reasons why the community shouldn't be okay with this,'" Lilley said. "You have a situation where some of your most vulnerable citizens are being put in an even more vulnerable spot, where there is no safety for them. They're exposed to people who are involved in drugs and are involved in criminal behavior. They move around in those circles that prey upon them."
Lilley, whose UGM plays a part in the homeless count, says getting a count of homelessness in the county is huge. Not only does the count—which takes well over 1,000 volunteers to complete—give an idea of the scope of homelessness in the county, but it also shows where people are sleeping.
"Getting that exact count gives you a sense of what's working and what's not and trends in what's happening with the population," Lilley said. "This is the unsheltered population. There are additional homeless who are in shelters throughout the county. Obviously, we have over 600 beds ourselves we're providing for people we want to get off the streets. Those numbers will be added later."
Besides providing beds, the UGM also serves the city's homeless through its "Search and Rescue" ministry. Led by Richard McAdams, who just three years ago was rescued himself from homelessness, the ministry sends out two or three vanloads a night of volunteers to hand out supplies and food.
But McAdams says the most important part of the ministry isn't what they hand out, but it's the conversations they start.
"The biggest reason we go out there is to just be that constant, to show them that there is love for them, that they are a part of our community," McAdams said. "It's all about the relationships. That's why we do it."
UGM keeps at least two beds a night free for men who want to get off the streets permanently and go through their Christ-centered program. They also will take women and families to shelters to get them off the streets.
"It's all in their time," McAdams said. "It's when they are ready. We don't force anyone to come back to the mission. We don't force anyone to go to our program. Whenever we are ready, we have an open-door policy where all they have to do is say, 'Hey, I'm ready.'"
The recent count showed that the highest number (1,608) of the county's homeless are staying in vehicles. Nearly two-thirds are in Seattle itself.
Because of the fluid nature of the homeless population and the inherent difficulties in counting such a mobile population, Lilley believes the numbers are likely much higher. The point, he notes, isn't the exactness of the number but comparison from year to year.
Lilley encourages King County residents who want to help to be a part of the Search and Rescue ministry because it provides a firsthand look at what it's like to be homeless. He believes the church has a responsibility to help the homeless
"The call to us as believers is to recognize that Christ reached a broken world, and he wants us to be like Him and reach a broken world," Lilley said.