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City survey counters common homelessness myths

No ‘Freeattle’ here

Several tents under a freeway overpass Joshua Rainey/Shutterstock

Last week, the mayor’s office released a “needs assessment” of the city’s homeless population. Their findings, based on a survey of 1,050 people experiencing homelessness, run counter to some common perceptions about homelessness in Seattle.

While it’s a common myth that unsheltered people come to Seattle because of access to generous social services, around 70 percent of survey respondents lived in Seattle or King County at the time they most recently became homeless.

“The survey suggests that the length of time of local residence is probably not too different from the general population,” says the city’s summary.

Many of the respondents’ reasons for coming to Seattle aren’t that different from the general population, either: 35.4 percent said they have family and friends living here, and 33.7 said they moved here for a job. Only 15.4 percent answered that they came here to access homelessness services—and it may have been in conjunction with any of a number of other reasons for coming to Seattle.

In fact, many survey respondents found Seattle’s homelessness services challenging to navigate. “Long waiting lists, communication, paperwork and follow-up challenges, inexperienced case management, and insufficient outreach services were all common themes in focus groups,” notes the summary.

Another, seemingly contradictory perception is that people living outside don’t want help at all, and would prefer to be left alone. But more than 90 percent of respondents “said they would move into safe and affordable housing if it was offered.”

When asked why they don’t use shelter services, 37 percent said they’re too crowded, followed closely by “bugs” at 30 percent. Other common reasons: A prohibitive amount of rules, shelters are full, and not being able to stay with a partner or family.

The summary also notes that Seattle’s housing affordability crisis contributes to a high rate of homelessness. 20 percent of respondents listed issues related to housing affordability as a primary catalyst for experiencing homelessness, including rent increases.

Housing assistance is increasingly difficult to access; nearly 22,000 people are seeking Housing Choice Vouchers in Seattle. Recently, 2,100 households submitted applications just to be considered for a 108-unit building near the Othello light rail station.

70.5 percent of survey respondents indicated that the monthly amount they could afford in rent and utilities is less than $500.

The survey would also indicate that nonwhite people experience homelessness disproportionately. According to census data, Seattle is 69.5 percent white, compared to 51.7 percent of survey respondents.

58 percent of women surveyed said they had experienced domestic violence—and among transgender respondents, that number jumps to 63 percent.

The city conducted the survey in both authorized and unauthorized encampments, shelters, libraries, food banks, and other common homeless gathering places. Many people experiencing homelessness themselves conducted peer surveys. The city also talked to 80 more individuals during a series of two-hour focus groups.

In his State of the City last month, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced a $55 million per year property tax proposal to double city spending on homelessness services. The city declared a state of emergency on homelessness in November 2015.