Homelessness may be down, but more people in King County are living in tents

A fuller report on the annual count shows sizable decreases in the number of young people and military veterans struggling with homelessness.

Tents and structures seen at a homeless encampment near South Dearborn Street in Seattle's Chinatown-International District, Feb. 25, 2019 (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

When King County released a preliminary draft of its annual homelessness report this month, government leaders had something to boast about. According to the one-night count, overall homelessness had decreased by 8 percent to 11,199 people, the first decline since 2012. Yet the news was delivered with caution, as critics pointed to the realities on the ground, which to them appeared no less critical than before. The recently released full report may offer an explanation for the apparent discrepancy. 

On Friday, the King County agency for coordinating homelessness response, All Home, published a deeper look at the count. While it reaffirmed that many demographics saw decreases in homelessness — especially among young people — it also found over 1,000 people living in tents, under tarps or in camps, a 32 percent increase compared with last year.

That increase would have been greater, except that tiny homes, once classified as encampments, were reclassified as emergency shelter.

The authors of the report noted that the increase in people sleeping in so-called encampments results from a “shift” in where people are staying. Even as tents increasingly populated the county, the number of people living in their vehicles dropped by 36 percent — from 3,372 to 2,147. That decrease follows a notable increase the year before.

“There isn’t any one factor or reason we can point to for this shift,” All Home’s acting director Kira Zylstra said in an email. “We know that the unsheltered population is changing and will continue to look to other data sources to better understand these shifts throughout the course of the year.”

Overall, 68 percent of those counted were in Seattle. Twenty-one percent were tallied in southwest King County, while the rest were scattered elsewhere in the county.

In follow-up interviews, 84 percent of those surveyed said they were living in Seattle/King County at the time they became homeless. This is similar to past surveys, belying the notion that people are moving here in droves specifically to take advantage of Seattle’s homeless services. Of that number, 19 percent said they had lived in the area for less than a year before becoming homeless. 

Polling repeatedly has shown homelessness as the top priority for Seattle voters in this fall’s city and county council elections. Seattle and King County have been under a homelessness state of emergency since 2015, but frustration about the perceived lack of progress has boiled over in the past year, especially in the aftermath of KOMO’s controversial Seattle is Dying feature.

This year’s decrease represented a snippet of positive news, although local officials repeatedly insisted they were not celebrating. Still, the data in the full report does show progress in many areas.

Homelessness among military veterans is down by 10 percent, continuing a positive trend of the past several years. The number of people considered chronically homeless — living somewhere not meant for human habitation, repeatedly re-entering homelessness or staying in a shelter for more than a year — decreased by a sizable 38 percent. Youth and young adult homelessness dropped by 28 percent. Family homelessness dipped as well, although the authors acknowledge that that population is likely undercounted.

"This is where we’ve done some good work on multiple levels," Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said of the reduction in youth homelessness. "First, it’s a smaller population overall. Second, there’s been investments in both prevention and housing. And third, we have sought to make policy changes... . We need to do that for adults."

Emergency shelter use increased by 14 percent, in part because tiny homes were newly classified as emergency shelter rather than encampments and because of newly opened facilities. At the same time, use of transitional housing decreased as the city has moved toward rapid rehousing as a model.

In a survey of over 1,000 people struggling with homelessness, nearly a quarter blamed job loss, the most common answer provided. The next most frequent answer was alcohol or drug use, followed by eviction, then a divorce or separation, and then rent increase.

Most people surveyed said they accepted some services, frequently a free meal.

Three-quarters of survey respondents said they would greatly benefit from affordable housing or a rental voucher.

As is well known at this point, certain populations are disproportionately represented in the region’s homeless population. Black people represented 32 percent of the homeless, while accounting for just over 6 percent of King County’s total population; Hispanic or Latino people were 15 percent of the count, compared with 10 percent of the total population; and Alaskan Indian/American Native accounted for 10 percent of the survey and 1 percent of the population. 

About 15 percent identified as a member of the LGBTQ+ population, compared with an estimated 4.8 percent of the total population, a number that’s famously inexact. Thirty-four percent of young people experiencing homelessness identified as a member of the LGBTQ+ population.

People struggling with homelessness reported greater health issues than the general population. Two-thirds reported at least one health condition, including psychiatric or emotional disorders, PTSD and drug or alcohol abuse. Thirty-seven percent said they had a disabling condition, a much higher number than their 6.4 percent of the total population.

In the past year and a half, Seattle has shifted its focus toward permanent housing placements and away from “mats on the floor” shelter service. At the same time, the city has worked to open more “enhanced shelter” options that do not close in the morning and include wraparound services. The city’s spending on homelessness has increased to nearly $90 million a year.

"If we meet people's needs they are no longer on the street," Eisinger said. 

It's for this reason she says the city and county should be doing more. "We can do it, but we can’t do it by pretending or by not spending the money that it takes to do what it takes," she said. 

All Home, Seattle and King County are designing a long-promised regional action plan and a “new consolidated authority to address regional homelessness,” according to a statement from All Home. 

Erin Goodman, executive director of the SoDo Business Improvement Area, said she’s certainly noticed an increase in tents. Because of that, she said she was initially skeptical of how the count was carried out this year. But she recalled comments she’d heard consultant Barb Poppe make once. “We can bring the numbers down and as long as there’s still an encampment in front of your business, the problem’s not better,” Goodman said.  

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.