How a Crosscut reporter found tears in Seattle's housing safety nets

A developing story series explores an undercovered aspect of the Seattle area’s homelessness crisis: what it’s like to get older without stable housing.

A man makes a space to sleep on the floor of his uncle's apartment

In his uncle’s one-bedroom apartment that he shares with two other people, Dwight Williams makes a pallet on the floor to sleep on, Sept. 17, 2019. Since losing his home, he switches between staying at his uncle's apartment and in shelters. “I just can’t mentally or physically handle a shelter,” Williams says. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

It wasn’t supposed to be a series. I wanted to write one story about how Seattle’s homeless population was aging and becoming less healthy.

The idea was borne out of a conversation in City Hall about how the Seattle Fire Department should respond to “low-acuity” calls — 911 calls that maybe didn’t need to be 911 calls. Many of these fire department responses were going to the city’s largest shelters, and the mayor and city council wanted to find an alternative to sending a whole crew to answer a call.

Hearing that conversation made me want to dig a little deeper, so I started having conversations with local service providers. But what I heard was larger than just the burden on 911. What I heard was that shelters were overwhelmed. Loath to turn people back onto the streets, providers were increasingly tasked with looking after people who could not or should not be looking after themselves.

What this represented was a weakened safety net not set up to deal with what were really end-of-life issues. After writing about Hughes Daniels, a man who was sleeping on a mat while dealing with colon cancer, I felt motivated to look for other tears in that net.

The next story was about federal disability insurance, the effectiveness of which has buckled under King County’s high rents. And last week, I wrote about a temporary state housing program that, once it expires, often leads people back into homelessness.

As the cost of living across the county has skyrocketed in recent years, we’ve seen a widening of the margins of who’s vulnerable to losing their housing. That does not explain all of the region’s homelessness crisis. But when we look every year at the thousands of people in shelters or on the streets, it’s certainly a significant proportion.

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in Crosscut's Weekly newsletter. Not yet subscribed? Get signed up, below, or head here to learn more of our newsletters.

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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.