by Luke Brennan
Over the last decade, Seattle and King County have taken various measures to support people living without permanent housing. In 2015, King County was investing $36 million a year to assist people living unhoused and at risk of becoming unhoused.
Despite these efforts, homelessness has been on the rise since 2010, with increasing rent prices as the likely culprit.
As more people became unhoused, mortalities also climbed, and in 2015, then-Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency.
What were the specific initiatives, task forces, and other government responses to support people living unhoused over the last 10 years? What plans were implemented, what were their goals or expected outcomes, and how well did they perform?
Ultimately, how does Seattle and King County’s progress over the last 10 years affect how we are currently responding to the issue? By understanding the outcomes of past initiatives, we can better understand how to improve services and support systems for people experiencing homelessness today.
A 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness
In 2005, King County launched a 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness by 2015. One of the goals of the initiative was to add 9,500 housing units.
By the halfway point, the effort had produced impressive results. According to the committee’s mid-plan review, more than 30,000 individuals were assisted out of homelessness. Another 18,500 people on the brink of becoming unhoused were assisted through emergency assistance programs, and 3,720 new housing units were added throughout the county.
The plan set forward by the Committee to End Homelessness ultimately missed its mark. In 2015, there were a total of 10,091 people living without permanent housing in King County. It also fell short of its goal for adding housing units, producing a total of 5,700 units from 2005 to 2015 rather than the intended 9,500 housing units.
Nonetheless, the program had some success. More than 40,000 individuals received stable housing due to the initiative, with 85% still in housing after two years. King County received national attention for its homelessness crisis in 2015, but it also ranked third in the nation for housing units set aside for those in need.
According to Mark Putnam, one of the directors of the 10-Year Plan, rising rent prices is at the heart of the issue. “Research shows that when rent goes up by $100 from one year to the next, homelessness increases by 15–39% depending on if it’s a rural, suburban, or urban area,” Putnam said.
Between 2010 and 2015, altogether rent in Seattle rose almost $400.
All Home and the Regional Homelessness Authority
King County’s next initiative was All Home — the continuation of the Committee to End Homelessness under a different name. All Home’s goal was to make homelessness a brief, one-time experience. In 2014, households experienced homlessness for 100 days on average before finding permanent housing, which All Home hoped to diminish. Similarly, All Home aimed to decrease the percentage of people who returned to homelessness after being housed from 18% in 2014 down to 5% by 2017.
On September 4, 2019, All Home, King County, and the City of Seattle unified forces under a Regional Homelessness Authority (RHA). This action was advised by the National Innovation Service (NIS), which issued a 10-step plan detailing how Seattle and King County could improve the impact of their services.
According to the NIS, “Fragmentation across programs and systems is a critical weakness of the homeless service systems in Seattle and King County … experiences of homelessness reflected this fragmentation: stories of geographically — and administratively — disconnected services, duplicative data collection, and [an] unnavigable system produce dead ends rather than meaningful assistance.”
The RHA has assisted an average of 6,350 households to permanent housing every year since 2017. Housing units have also risen in this time frame: Permanent supportive housing has risen from 5,469 units in 2017 to 6,249 units in 2020. Emergency shelters have increased by almost 1,000 units as well.
The RHA also tracks the number of households that enter and exit their system in any given year. The year 2020 was the first in which the number of exits was higher than the number of entries. This data appears hopeful, as it seems to indicate that more people moved from homelessness to becoming housed than vice versa.
Unfortunately, this may not be true. The RHA classifies a variety of situations as exits: From 2016 to 2020, around 50% of the exits recorded came from households who left the RHA system without declaring a destination. Other exit types include moving to temporary housing, a deceased head of household, and returning to life unsheltered. The percentage of exits to permanent housing stayed close to 30% over the last five years.
At times, efforts to support the unhoused in Seattle can appear scattered and disorganized. Initiatives and task forces are renamed, replaced, or discontinued; annual reports are issued by different entities or not at all.
Meanwhile, every day, we encounter people who are living on the street —- often without a reliable place to store possessions, clean clothes, take a shower, or get a solid night of rest. The fact is, that despite our efforts, many Seattlites are living unhoused in 2021.
While the RHA is still relatively new, their data is organized, depicting a clear image of the work they are doing, both good and bad. This is an important first step in becoming accountable to both people experiencing homelessness as well as to advocates and community leaders.
In considering next steps, it’s also important to note the role that business played in the homelessness crisis. In 2020, McKinsey and Company published a data-driven report on homelessness in Seattle. The report claims that “economic growth in the region is a leading cause of homelessness” and that “business bears some of the responsibility for the homelessness crisis.” Private businesses and economic growth led to an increase in rent, which resulted in more people living unhoused in Seattle.
Moving forward, Seattle and King County must continue to invest in housing: supportive housing for people with serious mental illness, emergency housing, and affordable housing. The solution to ending homelessness is to provide more options for housing. Seattle and King County will need private businesses to take an active role in housing the unhoused if efforts to end homelessness are to be successful.
Luke Brennan is a writer and software developer originally from Pittsburgh. He believes in promoting stories and voices that are not typically represented in the media. His work can be found at https://lukejhnbrnnn.medium.com/.
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