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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

New homeless count in King County shows spike in number of people sleeping outside

Seattle’s last safe parking zone for people living in recreational vehicles is at Second Avenue South and South Spokane Street in the Sodo neighborhood. The parking area is flanked on one side by busy railroad tracks and the Spokane Street Viaduct on another. Nine RVs and 11 residents are permitted to park in the safe zone. (Ramon Dompo / Seattle Times)
By Vernal Coleman Seattle Times

For the first time, King County’s annual one-night count of homelessness found more than half of homeless people were sleeping outside versus in shelter, with a stark increase in the number of vehicle campers.

With pressure to show progress on the homelessness crisis, the county on Thursday announced an overall 4 percent increase in the annual snapshot count of homeless people, to 12,112.

The count, conducted in January, found a worsening problem of people living in tent camps, cars, RVs and the street compared to last year. More than 70 percent of the county’s unsheltered homeless people were in Seattle.

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As Seattle and the county’s declared state of emergency on homelessness enters a third year, the one-night numbers are sure to roil an already heated debate about how to better respond.

Compared to more rapid rises in homeless counts over the past five years, a slower 4 percent increase represents progress, said Kyra Zylstra, interim director of All Home, the county’s homelessness coordinating agency, which organizes the yearly count.

“It’s not the kind of progress we all want to see,” Zylstra said. “But our performance data shows that the resources that we are investing in are housing people faster.”

The increase in people living outside includes 370 residents of Seattle’s six sanctioned tent camps. They are counted as “unsheltered” because federal guidelines do not recognize sanctioned tent camps as shelter.

The new homelessness figure points to some gains, including significant drops in the numbers of homeless veterans and families. Zylstra credited rapid rehousing, which provides rental assistance, with helping more people find stable housing.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said the results point toward a need for greater regional collaboration.

“We must continue to take urgent action on the homelessness crisis with holistic, regional solutions,” she said in a released statement,” Durkan said. “The reduction in veterans who are experiencing homelessness shows we can have an impact with focused strategies. But there is much work to be done”

Overall, about two-thirds of homeless people in the county are men, and more than three-quarters lived in households without children. There were also signs of homelessness worsening outside of Seattle, with increases in people living outside in north and east King County.

The results come at a critical time. Seattle’s new business head tax, which will charge large businesses $275 per worker to fund homeless services and affordable housing, spotlighted a struggle to find the right balance between long- and short-term strategies. The business community has organized an effort to repeal it.

In the midst of that debate, a task force on homelessness, called One Table, has had delays in recommending more countywide, comprehensive strategies.

 (Emily M. Eng / Seattle Times)
(Emily M. Eng / Seattle Times)

More living in cars

The county has conducted an annual count of homelessness for more than a decade, in compliance with a federal requirement. While the snapshot is imperfect, for the second year in a row the 2018 count included all 398 of the county’s census tracts, making it a much more thorough figure than those conducted over the previous decade.

The one-night “blitz” homeless count was supplemented by follow-up surveys from a California social-sciences firm, which asked detailed question of 1,056 people, yielding results with a 2.9 percent margin of error. Collating that survey data is one reason it takes months to release the data, according to officials.

One of the most startling findings this year was the jump in the number of people living in cars and recreational vehicles — a 46 percent increase from 2017 — reflecting the city’s lack of a coherent, effective strategy to move people out of cars and into housing.

Mike Sagdahl, 68, a Seattleite his entire life, has been living in his 2004 Honda Accord since August of last year. He lost a job delivering medical equipment because of a herniated disc. He was then evicted, and that ding on his credit record has hurt his ability to get an apartment.

For the last few months, he’s been sleeping near Green Lake, struggling with arthritis, in his compact car.

“If I had a van where I could stretch my legs out, it would be a lot better,” Sagdahl said. “I’ve got a dog; she’s half toy poodle and half terrier, and she’s my little soul mate, I tell you. Without her I’d probably be going crazy.”

Drop in homeless veterans

Among the gains in efforts to get homeless people housed is a 31 percent drop this year in homeless veterans. That follows a nationwide trend, with a 45 percent reduction since 2009 since the Obama administration set a goal of ending veterans’ homelessness.

Diaudre Hines is one of the people who found housing. He was honorably discharged from the Army in 1999 after he was injured while working as a cook.

He moved to Tacoma, found an apartment and a wife. But the effects of the injury lingered, and in 2016, he lost his job and fell behind on rent. He was homeless for months before finding a bed at a Renton transitional housing program, and then in November got permanent housing with federal rental assistance.

“I felt great. It was jubilant, I was so happy. Thank God,” Hines said.

The snapshot count, and the follow-up survey, also found a 28 percent spike in chronic homelessness, with significant rises among those 41 and older.

The survey found that a lost job was the leading self-reported reason for homelessness (25 percent), followed by drug and alcohol use (21 percent), eviction (11 percent) and medical and mental-health problems (both 9 percent).

Dan Malone, director of DESC, Seattle’s largest provider of services for chronically homeless people, said the rise in chronic homelessness was not surprising.

“It stands to reason that more people are homeless for longer periods of time than before, given that housing is so expensive and it’s hard to exit homelessness,” he said.