It's a fact that advocates who work with homeless people have been pointing out for a while: Most people experiencing homelessness in Seattle aren't new to the area.
While anti-homeless neighborhood types continue to claim the city's homeless population isn't really "from here," a new city survey of 1,050 homeless people in Seattle supports what advocates have been saying. It found that although it's true only 31 percent of survey respondents were "originally from Seattle," around 70 percent of the homeless people surveyed were already living in Seattle or King County when they most recently became homeless. About 49 percent were living in the city and 21 percent were living elsewhere in King County. About 13 percent of those surveyed came from out of state when they most recently became homeless.
While someone's status as a local shouldn't determine what type of access they get to social services, the claim that homeless people supposedly come to Seattle because we offer so many social services ("Freeattle") comes up during community meetings and discussions of how the city should treat people living outside. It's not hard to understand the underlying message in that concern: that Seattle should offer less help to homeless people because they're not from here, or that offering more services will only attract more of "them."
When asked, about 35 percent of the homeless people surveyed by the city said they came to Seattle because they have friends or family here and 34 percent said they came for a local job. Only about 15 percent said they came to access homeless services.
The surveys were completed last October and November by homeless people and shelter staff trained by the research firm Applied Survey Research. Homeless people who conducted the surveys were paid $7 per survey. People who completed the survey were given a $5 McDonald's gift card. In addition to the surveys, the city talked to 80 more people during six two-hour focus groups. Participants received a meal and $30. It's the first time the city has done a wide-ranging "needs assessment" like this since 2009. Mayor Ed Murray's office originally promised the results would be released in November but they're being released today after delays during the survey process.
Mirroring national data, the survey found that people experiencing homelessness in Seattle are disproportionately non-white. Half of those surveyed had been homeless for a year or more, 11 percent said they were immigrants or refugees, and 14 percent said they were veterans. For 56 percent of those surveyed, it was not their first time experiencing homelessness.
When asked what caused their homelessness, 25 percent said a lost job, 13 percent said alcohol or drug use, and 11 percent said they couldn't afford a rent increase. Twenty-nine percent of respondents said they use alcohol, 35 percent said they use hard drugs like meth, heroin, and crack, 42 percent said they have depression, and 31 percent said they have post-traumatic stress disorder. Of the women surveyed, 58 percent had experienced domestic violence. Among transgender respondents, that rate was 63 percent.
"Before I was homeless I was two or three years clean," one focus group participant told researchers, "but within my first week of being homeless, I was using again. I was using meth and all that. I never would have thought I would have been back doing that, but then the only reason why I was doing that, [was] so I could stay warm and literally forget the fact that I was homeless.”
When asked why they don't use shelters, 37 percent of those asked said the city's shelters are too crowded, 30 percent said they have bugs, 28 percent said there were too many rules, and 27 percent said the shelters are full.
Unsurprisingly, when asked what would help them obtain permanent housing, most people said rental assistance or more affordable housing.
"Focus group participants had a lot to say about the current system of care in Seattle in terms of providers, programs and service needs," the report reads. "Participants noted that they had difficulty accessing available services due to lack of support navigating the resource and referral system. Participants noted that they often had to call repeatedly to get someone on the phone or felt they could not follow up with services because they were only offered during certain times, such as regular business hours."
One focus group participant told the researchers about social service providers, "You call them and they have no resources, or they don’t have funding. There’s always an excuse to why they can’t help you. Then you get frustrated and you’re like, ‘Well now where do I go?’"