Photo depicting vendors for Real Change putting on their new high-visibility vests.

Myth Busting: Five Misconceptions About Homelessness We Need to Retire

by Lauren Duffy

(This article was originally published on Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

Homelessness remains a persistent problem in Seattle and King County. The region that houses some of the wealthiest men on the planet simultaneously has one of the largest populations of homeless people in the country. 

City and county leadership directed $119 million to the newly constituted King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA), which coordinates the homelessness response for the area, and, in 2021, former Mayor Jenny Durkan approved $167 million to combat the crisis. King County passed a new sales tax increase that allowed it to buy up distressed hotel properties through its Health Through Housing program. That brought more than 600 people inside as of August 2022, according to the County.

However, despite the expenditures, new strategies, and programs, tens of thousands of people in King County still interact with services meant to help people experiencing homelessness at some point in the year, and the crisis continues to be a focal point for residents. According to a 2022 Crosscut-Elway Poll of Washington State residents, 17% cited homelessness as an issue they wanted their state legislature to discuss, making it second only to the economy.

The prevalence of homelessness despite infusions of public dollars can lead to misconceptions about who becomes homeless and why. 

Photo depicting an individual in an orange jacket preparing a shared shelter space.
People help set up a Salvation Army shelter, November 2016. This kind of shared space no longer exists in Seattle, due to COVID-19 restrictions. The lack of privacy and comfort made this arrangement difficult for many to find comfort in, yet the mats were regularly filled before too long. However, the myth that people experiencing homelessness would rather sleep outside than under a roof persists. (Photograph via the Real Change archives.)

Mary’s Place, a homeless shelter for women and children in Seattle, works to help move people without a home into a more stable living situation. Linda Mitchell, the chief communications officer at Mary’s Place, says that sometimes homeless people can get a bad reputation when, in fact, being homeless is not in their control.

“Myths perpetuate stereotypes and provide opportunities for us to ‘other’ or look away,” Mitchell said. “Families experiencing homelessness are our neighbors who have hit a destabilizing bump in the road without a safety net.”

Some myths persist despite evidence to the contrary. Here are five common myths about people experiencing homelessness, and what the data actually says about their veracity.

Myth One: Homeless People Are ‘Service Resistant’

The term “service resistant” doesn’t have a consistent definition among service providers. However, it is often used to describe homeless people who allegedly do not want to accept shelter or services. 

The term suggests that people experiencing homelessness do not want help. However, in reality, “homeless people aren’t ‘service-resistant.’ Homeless services are people-resistant,” said Country, a homeless man in a story from Picture the Homeless. Picture the Homeless is an organization in New York City run by homeless people to empower their voices on the issues that most impact them.

Country noted that there are obstacles barring individuals from accessing many homeless services, including a lack of transportation to service offices, required documents (such as IDs), and sometimes responses from agencies.

In fact, most homeless people in King County say they are eager to find permanent housing when asked. The most recent point-in-time (PIT) count, conducted in January 2020, found that 94% of people experiencing homelessness would accept safe and/or affordable housing, if offered. 

Myth Two: Homeless People in Seattle Aren’t From Seattle

“Freeattle” is a term used to describe the misconception that homeless people are not from Seattle and have come here to take advantage of the city’s homelessness resources, according to a 2017 Real Change article.

According to a 2019 survey from All Home King County during the annual PIT count, the predecessor to the KCRHA, 52% of respondents were living in Seattle when they lost their housing. This data supports the notion that the homeless population are not all from Seattle. However, a much larger 84% of Seattle’s homeless residents were living in King County when they became homeless.

Gregg Colburn, assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Runstad Department of Real Estate, recently published the book Homelessness is a Housing Problem, which focuses on the role of housing in relation to the homelessness crisis.

“The idea that generous benefits cause this crisis, we find in the book no evidence that that’s the case,” Colburn said. “We don’t see any disproportionate permeability of people moving to Seattle to experience homelessness. There’s abundant research to support that.”

Myth Three: Homelessness Is Unrelated to Housing Costs

Correlation does not always mean causation. However, it is undeniable that homelessness tends to be higher in densely populated cities with expensive housing.

The housing market in Seattle has recently experienced a cost increase due to the housing shortage, resulting in extremely high home prices. In April 2022, the median home price in Seattle was $882,975, a 10% increase from the 2021 median home price. According to the 2020 U.S. census, the median individual income in Seattle was $52,142, while the national median individual income was $31,133.

The discrepancy between home prices and median salary can cause people to become homeless because they can’t pay rent or buy a home in the current market. This undermines the common myths that focus on other factors like drug dependence.

“The point is not that drugs and mental illness don’t matter — they certainly do — but you can’t blame that for the reason why we have so much more homelessness here,” Colburn said. “It’s the fact that we have really, really expensive housing, which accentuates vulnerability.”

The inability to afford Seattle’s high cost of living starts young. 

Kerry Malone, a public health student at the University of Washington, has studied the social determinants of health that contribute to increased adverse outcomes in homeless individuals. Seattle’s housing market is particularly inhospitable to young people who age out of foster care, Malone said.

“It’s very cyclical. People get out of foster care and are immediately homeless because they don’t have the tools or mentors to transition into the professional world,” Malone said. “Without these resources, climbing the socioeconomic ladder into affordable housing is almost impossible. And the housing in Seattle is expensive for anybody, really.”

Myth Four: Homeless People Are Addicts

Drug and alcohol abuse is the third most self-reported health condition of people experiencing homelessness. According to All Home’s 2019 PIT Count, 32% of individuals experiencing homelessness reported suffering from drug- and/or alcohol-use abuse.

However, the leading health conditions for people experiencing homelessness reported by 36% of PIT Count survey participants were psychiatric/emotional conditions including schizophrenia and depression. The second is post-traumatic stress disorder, which is experienced by an alarming 35%.

Mental illness and drug addiction, however, are not always the reason someone lost housing. 

There is a persistent belief that people fall into homelessness because they are addicted to drugs and alcohol. In reality, job loss is the leading reason for homelessness in Seattle. In 2019, 24% of homeless people reported in 2019 that job loss was why they lost housing while 16% of homeless people said that they lost housing due to drug or alcohol use.

Myth Five: Homeless People Don’t Want to Work

The refrain “get a real job” is so common that Real Change vendors have taken to wearing buttons that read “This is my real job” while selling the paper. People experiencing homelessness face similar stigma, particularly if they fall into the category of the “visibly homeless,” meaning the folks people encounter surviving in plain view.

However, many people experiencing homelessness are gainfully employed, but they don’t make enough money to cover the cost of living. In a recent Seattle Times article about the sweep of a SoDo encampment during the July heat wave, one of the people displaced was concerned that they wouldn’t get enough rest to perform their duties as an air traffic controller at Sea-Tac International Airport.

In 2020, 21% of the homeless population in Seattle had a job. That number jumps to 40% when looking at people experiencing homelessness across America, according to a May 2021 working paper out of the University of Chicago.

The stigma of homelessness also creates difficulties for those looking for work. While someone without a home may attempt to get a job, employers may be hesitant to hire them.

One main reason barring employment is that a homeless person may not have a permanent mailing address. These are often required on a job application. Another deterrent for employers in hiring or keeping on homeless people is that they might not have transportation to reliably get to work.

Some homeless people have disabilities, which can prevent them from getting employment as well. However, a large percentage of the homeless population are either working or cannot find a job because of the unwillingness of employers to hire them.

📸 Featured Image: Real Change vendors try on their new official vests, December 2017. Real Change has been a source of no-barrier work for people experiencing homelessness and poverty for over 25 years in the Seattle area, and yet people still believe that their neighbors who are unhoused do not want to work. (Photograph via the Real Change archives.)

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