It was just before 3 a.m. Friday, and black smoke from three campfires billowed over an access road and out across the water.
Orlando Stumvoll led a group of volunteers participating in the annual Point-In-Time homeless count toward a collection of shelters pieced together from tarps, pallets and other objects indiscernible in the early-morning darkness.
In the distance, three figures appeared, presumably residents of this encampment tucked against a fence in Tacoma’s Tideflats.
In previous years, a similar interaction might have proved a challenge for Stumvoll and his volunteers. The men they encountered might not have agreed to be counted, artificially skewing the numbers downward and frustrating volunteers and officials alike.
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But this year was different. For the first time ever in Pierce County, volunteers not only ventured out to area encampments in the dead of night, they also were authorized to count anyone experiencing homelessness they came upon — not just those who consented to being counted.
Stumvoll — a booming, boisterous man with diamond hoop earrings — walked toward the men and their camp, urging the rest of us to stay back. A few moments earlier, Stumvoll issued a caution of sorts.
“There’s no telling what we’ll get,” Stumvoll said. “We can get anything in these bad boys.”
An outreach specialist with Comprehensive Life Resources, Stumvoll is no stranger to Tacoma’s unauthorized homeless encampments.
Over the past year, as Tacoma passed its emergency homeless declaration and opened the large Dome District transition center, he says he’s watched as large, unauthorized encampments have closed while smaller ones, like this, have popped up.
Stumvoll had been to this camp before. He knew the soot-covered faces we encountered, and he knew the men’s stories and challenges.
Homeless advocates hope the changes to this year’s Point-In-Time project would help Stumvoll and others come up with a more accurate final count of people who are similarly situated.
The annual count — which is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — tallies people staying in emergency shelters and transitional housing, as well as those living outdoors without shelter. Last year, 1,321 individuals experiencing homelessness were identified, compared to 1,762 in 2016.
Stumvoll’s supervisor, James Pogue, the director of outreach for Comprehensive Life Resources, was also part of the group that encountered the three men on the Tideflats.
Earlier, Pogue explained how three improvements the county made this year — counting during the overnight hours, allowing volunteers to use an observational count for those who didn’t agree to the survey and using the “Counting Us” mobile app to help streamline the process — should mark an improvement.
It will also, in all likelihood, result in a higher number.
Tess Colby, manager of the Pierce County Human Services Department’s Community Services Division, said she expected anywhere from a 50- to 100-percent increase in the number of individuals found without shelter.
“There was a general consensus that we needed to change the way we were doing things,” Colby said.
In the past, Colby has spoken plainly about the limitations of the count, how uncontrollable things like weather can impact the final numbers, and how volunteers have been consistently frustrated by rules forbidding them from counting anyone who doesn’t consent to a survey.
Last year — when the final numbers suggested some 400 fewer individuals were experiencing homelessness than the year before, despite overwhelming anecdotal evidence to the contrary — stands as a prime example of all of these shortcomings, she said. The weather was uncharacteristically pleasant, and most volunteers came back with stories about individuals they encountered but were not able to count.
“We now had tangible evidence of the under-count,” Colby said of last year’s experience, which she described as “one of those defining moments.”
Back along the Tideflats, after a brief exchange and a call for some of the donated blankets volunteers were handing out, Stumvoll helped convince one of the men to take the formal survey. A volunteer with a smart phone quickly started administering it, while the man’s companions stood off to the side, their skepticism clear even in the darkness.
Last year, a similar interaction would have resulted in volunteers counting one individual and moving on. On Friday, volunteers added three to the tally before packing up and heading to the next location, a few makeshift tents in a wooded area on a hillside along the freeway.
On the car ride, cruising along empty city streets with old-school rap providing a soundtrack, Stumvoll described this year’s changes as positive.
At the same time, he was realistic. He’s in these camps every day, after all.
“It’s still hit and miss. If I look at my paperwork, I anticipated about 50 people we were going to encounter, and we haven’t even probably hit half of that,” Stumvoll said.
He’s right. In total, over a four-hour period, he and his volunteers counted 24 individuals experiencing homelessness.
“We know there’s way more than that,” Stumvoll said.