A report released Thursday shows an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness across King County. The one-night count also revealed a clear gap in progress for one key group: people living in vehicles.
The numbers show 12,112 people are currently experiencing homelessness across the county, a 4 percent increase from last year. Of those, more than half were living unsheltered, including in tents, in vehicles, and on the street. That unsheltered count is up 15 percent from last year. It's also the first time the count has found more people unsheltered than sheltered.
The number of unsheltered people in the count has increased steadily over the last four years. The numbers aren't exactly comparable since All Home King County, the regional agency that conducts the count, has changed its methodology in an attempt to get a more accurate count. They are also likely an undercount. But they're the closest thing the region has to a year-to-year comparison of people experiencing homelessness.
The numbers are collected on one night in January and then expanded with survey data. They're a combination of shelters providing their figures, volunteers counting people sleeping outside and in vehicles, a survey of unaccompanied youth and young adults, and a survey of people experiencing homelessness conducted in part by other homeless people.
The 2018 count found fewer people in unsanctioned encampments (which are subject to law enforcement sweeps) and more in sanctioned encampments. The biggest increase among those living unsheltered, though, was the number of people living in vehicles. The 2018 count found 3,372 people in cars, vans, and RVs across King county, up 46 percent from 2017.
The issue is particularly acute in Seattle, where 2,279 people were counted living in vehicles. That's up from 1,540 in 2017 and slightly higher than the number of people in Seattle living on the streets and in tents.
The figures underscore a well-known problem in the region. While Seattle has opened several sanctioned tent encampments and expanded shelter options in recent years, the city has done little for people living in their vehicles.
Vehicles can be safer than living in tents or doorways, but they're also subject to scattershot enforcement. Most areas of Seattle require drivers to move vehicles every 72 hours or be towed. When one Seattle man living in his truck had his truck towed, he faced more than $500 in fines to get it back. A King County Superior Court judge later found those fines unconstitutionally high.
Former mayor Ed Murray's administration opened a safe lot for people living in vehicles. But with electricity, staffing, and other measures on site it proved too expensive. The city has done little since. RVs and other vehicles in which people live also draw the ire of neighborhood groups. When Council Member Mike O'Brien proposed a partial solution—exempt people living in vehicles from tickets and towing for one year if they enroll in a program to connect them to services—the effort faced backlash and stalled out in council process. O'Brien has since said the city has "no plan" for people living in vehicles.
The recently passed tax on large businesses might provide some help—if the tax survives a referendum effort. According to a tentative spending plan approved by the city council, between $850,000 and $1.1 million a year from the tax would fund 153 safe parking spaces and outreach to people living in vehicles. That spending plan is still subject to budget negotiations this fall.
In the survey portion of the 2018 count, people living in vehicles were more likely to attribute their homelessness to losing a job, eviction, or dissolution of a relationship compared to other respondents. They were also significantly more likely to report that law enforcement had asked them to move: 71 percent compared to 49 percent of other survey respondents.
The survey also provides a snapshot of who is experiencing homelessness in King County:
• The majority of people experiencing homelessness in the 2018 count identified as people of color. The biggest disparity was among people identifying as Black or African American, who make up 6 percent of King County's population but 27 percent of those experiencing homelessness. People identifying as Hispanic or Latino make up 9 percent of the county population but 15 percent of the homeless count, and those identifying as multiple races make up 6 percent of the county population but 16 percent of the count.
• LGBTQ people are also overrepresented. The report cites a 2015 Gallup survey that found 4.8 percent of the population in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area identified as LGBT. Of the survey respondents in the point in time count, 8 percent identified as bisexual, 6 percent as gay or lesbian, and 1 percent as queer. A higher rate of unaccompanied youth and young adults in the count identified as LGBTQ compared to other survey respondents. Among transgender people and people who identified as a gender other than male or female, rates being unsheltered were "notably higher."
• Among survey respondents, 36 percent reported a history of domestic violence or partner abuse. The highest prevalence of abuse was found among LGBTQ people, youth and young adults, and families with children.
• About 2,600 people were in families with children, a 7 percent decrease from 2017.
• About 1,500 were unaccompanied youth and young adults, a slight increase over 2017.
• About 900 identified as veterans, a 31 percent decrease from 2017.
• More than 3,500 people were experiencing chronic homelessness, meaning they live with a disability or mental or physical health condition and have either lived in shelters for a year or longer or been homeless four or more times in the last three years.
• Many survey respondents reported health conditions that in some cases prevent them from living in stable housing, having a job, or taking care of themselves. The most commonly reported conditions were psychiatric or emotional conditions, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug and alcohol abuse. More than a quarter reported a physical disability.
• Asked about their living arrangements right before becoming homeless, most survey respondents reported staying with friends or relatives or renting. The three most common reasons people gave for being homeless were a lost job (25 percent), alcohol or drug use (21 percent), and eviction (11 percent).
• More than 80 percent of respondents lived in King County when they became homeless.
• Among respondents, 52 percent reported they had been in jail or juvenile detention. However, only 6 percent said they'd been in jail or prison immediately prior to experiencing homelessness.
• Asked about housing, 98 percent of survey respondents said they would move into safe and affordable housing if offered. While rental assistance, affordable housing, and employment were among the top things respondents said would help them get housing, they also cited things like help clearing their credit and help clearing their rental history.
• The survey also asked about what services people use. While 82 percent said they use programs like meal services, shelter, housing, and health programs, the 18 percent who said they weren't accessing any services was three times higher than the 2017 figure. Most people in the survey reported difficulty accessing services, including not qualifying, not having transportation, not having the necessary documents, and not knowing where to go for help.