Today, the city’s Human Services Department (HSD) released the results of a survey conducted by Applied Survey Research as a followup to the annual point-in-time count of people living unsheltered in King County.
UPDATE: Here’s a copy of the survey itself.
Departing from its usual practice of announcing the results of the count immediately after conducting it in January, All Home—the agency that coordinates homelessness efforts across the county—says it needs several months to crunch the numbers and won’t release them until late spring. HSD and ASR commissioned homeless and formerly homeless people to survey about 1,050 people staying in cars, shelters, transitional housing, encampments, and in public spaces, paying recruits $7 cash for every survey they returned. (Those who participated in the survey received a $5 McDonald’s gift card.) ASR also conducted small focus groups with 80 people experiencing homelessness across the city.
Watch for the city to use the survey, which cost $100,000, to make its case that homeless people living in Seattle are not, contrary to one common contention, just lazy, able-bodied freeloaders who came here from somewhere else to lounge in Seattle’s generous social safety net. Whether people who trade in those stereotypes will be swayed by a new data set based on self-reporting by homeless people is another question; so far, the sweep-’em-up-and-ship-’em-out crowd hasn’t been moved by surveys showing that most homeless people who live here are from here, or that most homeless people say they’re homeless not because of laziness or addiction but because they can’t find affordable housing.
Some highlights of the survey:
• Seventy percent of those surveyed said they became homeless after living in King County, and 49 percent said they were living in Seattle just before they lost their housing; just 15 percent said they came here from another state or country. That breakdown isn’t much different than the sheltered population—52 percent lived in Seattle before moving into their current residence, and 16 percent moved to their current home from another country or out of state. More than half of those surveyed said they have lived in Seattle for more than five years.
• Most of the homeless people surveyed said they came here to be near family or friends (35 percent) or for a job (34 percent). On the other hand, 15 percent said they came here to access homeless services, and nearly 10 percent said they moved to Seattle because pot is legal here. (I’ve requested the specific survey questions, but HSD staff said yesterday that legal marijuana was on a prewritten list of possible responses; it wasn’t a respondent-generated answer).
• Defying another stereotype—the common belief that most homeless people are homeless by choice—93 percent of survey respondents said they would move into safe, affordable housing if it became available. According to the ASR report, “This … suggests that the ‘traveler’ or ‘nomadic’ sojourner does not represent a significant group.”
• One reason people camp in greenbelts and fields is that they don’t want to stay in shelter, not because they’re stubborn or lazy but because shelters are often dirty, always crowded, and sometimes dangerous; in addition, they separate couples and don’t allow people with pets or more than a backpack full of possessions. According to the survey, of those not using shelters, 36 percent said they didn’t use shelters because they’re too crowded, 30 percent because of bugs, and 29 percent because the shelters were full. Twenty percent said they didn’t use shelters because they don’t allow pets, and 21 percent because they don’t allow couples.
• More than 40 percent of those who responded to the survey said they had a job—13 percent said they were employed full-time, and 28 percent said they worked part-time or in temporary or seasonal jobs.
• Forty-five percent of respondents said they didn’t use drugs or alcohol; 29 percent said they drank, and 12.2 percent reported using heroin. HSD staffers acknowledged that because drug and alcohol use was self-reported, those numbers could be low—the same way many people lowball how much they drink or smoke when asked by their doctor. Thirteen percent identified drug or alcohol use as the primary cause of their homelessness. “Respondents agreed that not all persons experiencing homelessness are addicted to drugs and alcohol, and that this misconception about homeless communities has adverse consequences. However, they also agreed that drug use is linked to dealing with the stresses of being homeless, and self-medicating to manage pain.”
• Eighteen percent of survey respondents said they were under 18 when they first experienced homelessness, and almost a quarter of those surveyed said they had been through the foster care system. Eleven percent of the women surveyed said they were pregnant, and many of them already had children.
• Pathways Home emphasizes the need to house people who are chronically homeless—that is, people who have been homeless a year or more and who have a disabling mental or physical condition. Half the survey respondents reported they had been homeless for a year or more, and 30 percent met the criteria for chronic homelessness—twice the average national rate, and in line with other West Coast cities, where homelessness is more common than in areas with more inclement weather and fewer services.
• More than half the women surveyed—58 percent—said they had been victims of domestic violence. Transgender and other gender non-conforming individuals were even more likely to have experienced domestic violence—63 percent and 78 percent, respectively—and 30 percent of homeless men said they were domestic violence victims. Overall, just under 5 percent said domestic violence was the primary reason they became homeless.
• Some of the survey’s findings seemed to contraindicate some of the solutions advocated in Pathways Home, the city’s road map for future spending on homelessness. For example, Pathways Home recommends investing heavily in short-term rental vouchers that run out after a few months, leaving formerly homeless renters at the mercy of a brutal rental housing market. However, according to the survey, many respondents said they worried about “how to make ends meet past the initial deposit and first/last month’s rent and whether that meant they might end up without a home again after a few months.
“Long-term support was also identified as a key element of a well-designed program,” the survey report continues, “especially in relation to housing assistance programs, particularly in relation to rapid re-housing programs and the challenges of keeping up with rent. One participant elaborated on this recurring theme, ‘I don’t understand why they leave you after 2 months, why can’t they just [help] 6 months to a year if you need it. Then people find themselves right back in the same position that they were in, homeless because they something out of their control happens.”
Pathways Home also recommends getting people into housing wherever they can find something they can afford, even if that means they’re uprooted from communities and support systems and unable to access services and employment because they can’t afford cars. According to the report, “When asked about housing options outside the City, responses were mixed. While some participants shared that they just wanted ‘to get off the streets,’ others worried about commuting to jobs if they were too far outside the City if they lacked access to public transportation, as well as furthering the effects of gentrification.”
On Wednesday, HSD staff said they don’t want to displace people from Seattle to far-flung suburban communities that are inaccessible by transit, but added that they did not plan to deviate from the Pathways Home recommendations.
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