Has ‘unsheltered homelessness’ really dropped 20% in Seattle in 2019? Probably not

Numbers of “unsheltered homeless” individuals from the county’s annual tally. The full report is below.

The 2019 King County point-in-time count homelessness which reported some dramatic drops in homelessness was met with scrutiny this week in a King County Council briefing.

Throughout the county, the total homeless population decreased by 8% from last year, to 11,199, according to the annual count performed by All Home KC in late January, the data from which should be taken with a grain of salt despite being the most consistent indicator of trends in the region.

According to the 2019 data, the county tally found 17% fewer individuals “experiencing unsheltered homelessness” while Seattle saw an even more dramatic drop of 20% as 3,558 individuals were reported experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the city.

“I think people should probably be pretty careful before they take too much out of the many different numbers that are in this report,” Downtown Emergency Service Center Executive Director Daniel Malone said at Tuesday’s council hearing, according to KOMO News.

The count found homelessness improved in the county for the first time in seven years.

68% of the 5,228 individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness throughout King County are in Seattle, down from 71% last year and 70% in 2017. The count in 2018 tallied 6,320 such people in the county in total.

Of the over 5,000 people in 2019, about 1,100 persons are living outside or in tents each, along with nearly 1,300 more living in other unsheltered situations, such as in cars, recreational vehicles, and vans.

Persons living in RVs in Seattle dropped by more than half between 2018 and 2019, according to the count.

Year-over-year, the unsheltered homeless population only went up in the southwest part of the county, which includes Tukwila and SeaTac. Meanwhile, those who are homeless and sheltered in Seattle went up from 4,000 a year ago to 4,239 in 2019. The unsheltered population decreased from 52% of the homeless population in 2018 to 47% in 2019.

Among the sheltered population, the number of persons residing in emergency shelters increased by 13%, which the report attributes to the addition of such beds, expansion of shelter capacity, and the redefining of five Seattle Tiny House Villages to emergency shelter status. Between 2018 and 2019, the transitional housing and Safe Haven population decreased by 14%.

52% of the respondents to the count’s survey of 1,171 individuals reported living in Seattle at the time of their housing loss.

Counts for both individuals experiencing homelessness and a serious mental illness or a substance abuse disorder saw staggering drops. Adults who are homeless with a serious mental illness decreased from 3,229 in 2018 to just over 2,100 this year. Those with a substance abuse disorder dropped by nearly 900 people. The unsheltered populations in these categories both fell more than 50% between 2018 and 2019, according to the count.

“It does indicate some signs of progress,” All Home’s acting director Kira Zylstra said, briefing the council during the Tuesday hearing, KOMO News reported.

42% of the individuals experiencing homelessness were white, 32% were Black or African American, 15% were Hispanic or Latino, and 10% were American Indian or Alaska Native.

The results have stirred a debate as the data contradicts what many see on the streets as the homelessness crisis has come to the forefront of the city’s politics. Even Zylstra noted at the county council hearing that the report is likely an undercount.

“This is not a trend yet,” she said. “We need to continue to track this in the same manner year over year to see if this is truly a shift and if we can continue perpetuating that shift, or if this was a blip and we need to make a difference.”

That being said, Zylstra credited the apparent progress to a few things, including better organizational collaboration, improved data, more individual-oriented assistance, and increased funding, according to KOMO.

Malone said that the region did not establish enough supportive housing since last year’s count to see such a strong improvement in the numbers of individuals who are chronically homeless, defined in the report as “someone who has experienced homelessness for a year or longer—or who has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness totaling 12 months in the last three years—and also has a disabling condition that prevents them from maintaining work or housing.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan touted the numbers in a statement, a portion of which reads, “This new One Night Count shows that our work and data-driven investments over the last year to prevent and address homelessness is having an impact.” The statement added “we have a lot more work to do.”

Durkan chalked up the progress to city efforts aimed at increasing homeless shelters with more onsite services and a diversion strategy that offers one-time financial aid. On top of that, she recently announced the expansion of the city’s Navigation Team, which does outreach and cleanup of encampments, as CHS has previously reported.

“This crisis requires urgent action and new steps,” Durkan said in a statement announcing the change last week. “We will continue to work for holistic solutions and do more to help bring people inside and connect them with services and housing – and we will continue to invest in the strategies we know have an impact, like enhanced shelter and our Navigation Team.”


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5 thoughts on “Has ‘unsheltered homelessness’ really dropped 20% in Seattle in 2019? Probably not

  1. Why were the “tiny house villages” reclassified as “emergency shelters”? It would be more accurate to call them “transitional housing.”

    The survey says that 52% report living in Seattle at the time of their housing loss. This is a dramatically lower figure than the past surveys, which claimed that the vast majority of homeless are “from here,” and it suggests that many homeless people are moving here from elsewhere, probably because of our generous services and because of our “look the other way” approach (which hopefully is changing).

      • And was this the count conducted by hiring homeless people? I know that’s the case in some of the previous studies. I’m all for helping the homeless get jobs, it’s just that it could be a little self serving to come back with “statistics” that say our homeless population is mostly homegrown. Anecdotally, it sure seems that when any of this population are arrested they seem to be from Texas or somewhere else in the South.

      • I’m not sure where you are getting the figures you cite. The article says otherwise, as I state above.

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