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Survey says Seattle is not ‘Freeattle’

Sleeping along a Seattle boardwalk Credit: Rex Bennett/Flickr

The mayor’s office is today releasing extensive data from a weeks-long “needs assessment” of Seattle’s homeless population. The data is meant to both inform Seattle’s new approach to tackling the homeless crisis and, theoretically, douse water on the oft-repeated narrative that people struggling with homelessness are moving to Seattle in droves.

Nearly 50 people struggling with homelessness themselves helped the city conduct the survey, which was carried out in collaboration with California-based Applied Survey Research. In a briefing with reporters Thursday, city officials said the data was collected from all corners of the county and city: city-funded and unauthorized pop-up encampments, shelters, libraries, food banks, cars and any other locations the city knows the homeless to gather.

According to representatives from the Human Services Department, the data is largely raw and not yet analyzed. But city representatives say the survey gathered responses from more than 1,000 people without permanent homes in Seattle and greater King County. While the survey is not scientific, the hope is that the findings — in combination with the county’s annual count of people experiencing homelessness and the federally driven Homeless Management Information Systems — will create a clearer image of who needs help and how. How the city should approach this issue is, ultimately, rooted in who these people are.

The story of “Freeattle” — that Seattle is so generous to the homeless that people are moving here — is vehemently rejected by most City Hall leaders. Mayor Ed Murray blames the problem on the so-called opioid epidemic, a hobbled mental health system and lack of affordable housing.

The new data will bolster his assertions. It found, for one, that 70 percent of people struggling with homelessness became homeless while living in Seattle and 50 percent have been here for more than five years. That’s not to say they were necessarily born here — as many in Seattle these days were not — but the city will point to this number as proof that the majority of the homeless are either longtime residents or moved here for some other reason.

Nearly 70 percent said they came to Seattle either because friends and family lived here or for a job in the area. Only 15 percent said they moved here to specifically access homeless services. One-quarter blamed losing a job for becoming homeless and 20 percent cite complications related to housing.

The city and the mayor also have sharply rejected claims that people living on the streets do not want help. City officials have countered that it is not a question of desire, but of what’s practical for homeless people in their individual situations. Officials also say many shelters, with high barriers for entry and strict hours, are not practical for people with pets, for couples and for others.

The survey results report that 93 percent of respondents would move into housing if affordable housing were an option. This will be a major talking point for the mayor as he continues to sell his Pathways Home report — his office’s plan for addressing the homelessness crisis. That plan calls for a major shift toward “rapid re-housing,” which calls for immediately providing subsidized, usually private housing and then slowly scaling back the support, rather than the more traditional continuum of care that moves people through various stages of transitional shelter.

That the overwhelming majority of people on the streets said they desire permanent housing could bolster this strategy, even as some local service providers have doubts.

Some of the results from the survey fit previous findings: African Americans, Native Americans and LGBTQ people are all disproportionately represented. Younger people are less likely to seek temporary shelter. And a whopping 40 percent of young people on the streets came directly from foster care.

Mental health and substance use were certainly factors. Two-thirds of people said they use either alcohol, methamphetamines, crack, heroin or some other substance. Seventeen percent of people living on the streets — completely without shelter — said they used heroin, which actually sounds low compared to what many have guessed. City representatives conceded that respondents likely under-reported.

Perhaps the most sobering statistic is that 41 percent of people living on the streets work in some capacity. More than 70 percent of respondents said they could afford paying $500 per month for rent, again bolstering Murray’s commitment to providing more vouchers for people to enter the private housing market.

Solving the problem will be difficult. Fifty percent of homeless people have been on the streets for more than a year and 30 percent are considered “chronically homeless” — meaning they’ve been outside for more than a year and have some significant mental or physical disability. Helping these longterm homeless people through rapid rehousing is significantly more challenging than helping those who just need a little boost.

The mayor has proposed doubling what the city spends on homeless, funded through a property tax levy on the ballot this summer. The Human Services Department will release a $25 to $30 million request for proposals this summer to revamp Seattle’s response to homelessness.

Homelessness remains a literal state of emergency, declared by Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine a year and a half ago, and finding solutions is getting to be a desperate chase — so much so, in fact, that it apparently makes more political sense for Murray to call for new taxes in an election year than it does for him to let funding to combat homelessness remain at current levels.

This series made possible with support from Northwest Harvest. The views and opinions expressed in the media, articles, or comments on this article are those of the authors and do not reflect or represent the views and opinions held by Northwest Harvest.

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