Tag: chronic homelessness

Homelessness Report Highlights Inequities, Growth In Chronic Homelessness In King County

This story originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

Last year, when King County’s “point-in-time count” of the homeless population indicated a slight dip in the number of people counted in the shelters and on the streets, Mayor Jenny Durkan celebrated the news, crediting the city’s work adding shelter and expanding the Navigation Team, among other actions, for the apparent 5 percent decline in unsheltered homelessness. Three-quarters of that decline was attributed in the report itself to the redefinition of “shelter” to include tiny house village encampments, which moved a number of people from the “unsheltered” to the “sheltered” column even though their living situation stayed the same.

This year’s one-night count showed a slight increase in both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness throughout King County, with the biggest increases in Seattle and Southwest King County. The new total estimate of 11,751 people experiencing homelessness represents a five percent increase over last year. A separate survey, which had fewer participants than in previous years, provided demographic data and information about why people became homeless, information that the county’s “Count Us In” report extrapolates across the entire homeless population.

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Now for the caveats. Every point-in-time count is just that—a count of how many people volunteers were able to identify on a specific night in January, a time when the number of people seeking shelter is higher and when the number sleeping outdoors fluctuates widely based on the weather. The night of the count, January 24, was extraordinarily rainy, with 1.14 inches of rain compared to no rain the previous year. Probably as a consequence, the number of people found living in abandoned buildings increased dramatically, from 140 to 662; the report notes that “The combined totals (of abandoned building count and street/outside count) are notably similar across the years.

Additionally, the report says homeless encampments sweeps by the city of Seattle probably reduced the Seattle numbers by at least several dozen; the report notes the removal of “28 tents and structures” from one site and the disappearance of at least 50 people from another immediately before the count took place.

The number of people counted also depends, in part, on the number of people walking and driving around the county and counting them. This year, about half as many volunteers showed up for the count as did in 2019, and about 25 fewer guides with lived experience of homelessness. The report attributes this decline to the weather and a shooting downtown that occurred less than two days before the count.

Additionally, the report says homeless encampments sweeps by the city of Seattle probably reduced the Seattle numbers by at least several dozen; the report notes the removal of “28 tents and structures” from one site and the disappearance of at least 50 people from another immediately before the count took place.

Another factor that makes the January count an incomplete guide to current homeless numbers is the fact that it took place before the COVID-19 crisis, which created unprecedented unemployment throughout the region. Data from the county’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) shows a steady increase in the number of people seeking homeless services through the end of March, when 13,238 households (which can include multiple people) sought services, a 29 percent increase over January. Losing a job is the most common reason survey respondents gave for becoming homeless (16 percent); another 8 percent said they became homeless because they couldn’t afford their rent. 

“Without accurate data that tells the truth about the astonishingly high rates in the Native community, the narrative is inequitable.” — Colleen Echohawk, Chief Seattle Club

The county could not offer HMIS data after March, but the numbers are likely to increase substantially—especially after moratoriums expire. Leo Flor, the director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, said Wednesday that “rent-burdened” households—renters who struggle to pay rent from month to month—will be hit especially hard by both the economic downturn and the eventual termination of financial assistance that is currently helping them make ends meet.

“If that assistance were to cease” in the absence of replacement income, “we would see a lot of additional people moving from rent-burdened to homelessness.” In other words: If people who are living on cash or rent assistance (or not paying rent at all during the eviction moratorium) don’t find jobs by the time that income runs out, we’re going to see a lot more homeless people on our streets. This is supported by the fact that “losing a job” was the most common reason people reported becoming homeless, followed by alcohol or drug issues, mental health problems, and an inability to afford rent.

People sleeping outdoors or otherwise unsheltered increased in every part of King County except North and Southeast King County, with the largest percentage increases in Northeast King County (69 percent) and East King County (32 percent), followed by Seattle at 5 percent.

People who identified as Black made up 25 percent of people experiencing homelessness in the latest count, which uses numbers from a separate survey—this year, of 832 homeless adults and youth) to extrapolate demographic data across the entire homeless population. (The people conducting the one-night count do not approach people or note their apparent genders or races.) That’s a decline from last year’s number, 32 percent, but still extremely disproportionate in a county where Black people make up just 7 percent of the population.

The proportion of Native American/Alaska Native people experiencing homelessness, meanwhile, spiked from 10 to 15 percent of the people surveyed, and 32 percent of those experiencing chronic homelessness, a prevalence that’s 15 times higher than the number of Native people in the county. Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, attributed the increase to better data collection this year, including the fact that Native service providers have been increasingly involved in data collection. (Prior to last year, no Native organizations were involved in collecting data.)

“Chronic homelessness is tough on people’s health, it’s tough on people’s ability to maintain their relationships, and it certainly is hard on their ability to maintain their housing status.” — King County DCHS Director Leo Flor 

“Because of our efforts to collect more accurate data related to American Indians and Alaska Natives experiencing homelessness, we believe we are getting closer to truly understanding the scope of the work ahead,” Echohawk said in a statement. “Without accurate data that tells the truth about the astonishingly high rates in the Native community, the narrative is inequitable.”

King County’s survey also include a multi-race category, which dilutes the racial data.

This year’s report also shows dramatic increases in the number of families with children experiencing homelessness (from 2,451 to 3,743) and in the percentage of those individuals who were unsheltered (from 3 to 29 percent), along with an increase in the number of homeless individuals (70 percent of them women) fleeing domestic violence. The report attributes these upticks,  in part, to better data collection. But the number of women experiencing homelessness, both in general (41 percent) and in subcategories like youth (47 percent) and people living in vehicles (56 percent) suggests that the face of homelessness is increasingly female—a fact that doesn’t fit with the most common stereotypes about who becomes homeless and why. The report didn’t ask women and men separately why they became homeless, an oversight that makes it hard to extrapolate why women become homeless from this report.

The number of people who are chronically homeless (a group that is much more likely to be unsheltered than people who have been homeless for shorter periods) increased more than 52 percent this year, to 3,355, and the rate of reported psychiatric disorders also spiked sharply. (The term “chronically homeless” refers to a person who has been homeless for more than a year, or for more than four times in the last three years, and who suffers from a chronic physical or mental health condition, including serious mental illness or addiction or a physical disability.)

Flor, the DCHS director, noted Wednesday that the two trends are closely related. As the number of people experiencing long-term homelessness increases, he said, “we would expect that the number of psychiatric conditions would increase as well. Chronic homelessness is tough on people’s health, it’s tough on people’s ability to maintain their relationships, and it certainly is hard on their ability to maintain their housing status.”

In her statement about this year’s results, Mayor Durkan emphasized the county’s move to a regional approach to homelessness rather than one centered on City of Seattle resources. “While many individuals[‘] last stable home was not in the City of Seattle, our city continues to serve the most vulnerable in our region,” Durkan said. “Our regional homelessness investments must include an immediate and direct response to any crisis of housing stability, connecting people with the services they need, in their community wherever they are across the county.”

After the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness ended in 2015 (a year that, like previous years and all the ones since, ended with more people experiencing homelessness than ever), cities, counties, and service providers should be adopted the mantra that homelessness should be “brief, one-time, and rare.” This year, not only did the rate of chronic, long-terms homelessness increase, so did the percentage of survey respondents who said they had been homeless for one year or more.

Seattle has tried focusing on “rapid rehousing” with short-term vouchers, pivoting to heavy investments in emergency shelter, and now joining forces with the county and suburban cities to try to agree on a single regional solution to homelessness. Perhaps next year’s count will begin to reveal whether this latest shift will actually yield results.

Annual Homeless Count: Redefining “Shelter,” Struggling to Count the Chronically Homeless

The latest annual report on King County’s homeless population from All Home King County found an overall decrease in the number of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in Seattle, from 4,488 last year to 3,558 in 2019—a reduction Mayor Jenny Durkan touted in a letter announcing the expansion of the Navigation Team as “the first decrease since 2012″ and evidence that ” our shared work to address our crisis of affordability and homelessness is having an impact.” Over the same time period, the number of people experiencing homelessness who were in some form of shelter or transitional housing increased from 4,000 to 4,239.

This year—at the request of Mayor Durkan’s Human Services Department—All Home redefined “shelter” to include five “tiny house village” encampments. This added 180 people to the “sheltered” count, which accounts for all but 59 individuals added to the “sheltered” category.

However, those numbers conceal a few important details: First, that the number of unsheltered people living in tent encampments actually went up in this year’s count, from 1,034 to 1,162. Second, this year—at the request of Mayor Durkan’s Human Services Department—All Home redefined “shelter” to include five “tiny house village” encampments that were previously categorized as encampments. This added 180 people to the “sheltered” count, which accounts for all but 59 individuals added to the “sheltered” category. (A sixth village, at Northlake, was excluded “until it is up to ADA code,” according to the board minutes.) Including the tiny houses—communities where people live in wooden structures the size of a small garden shed—in the “encampment” count would have raised that number to 1,342. The board vote on the redefinition was split 10-4.

In a letter to the All Home board in March, Seattle Human Services Department Director Jason Johnson requested that the tiny houses be moved to the “shelter” category, arguing that they meet “the most relevant” criteria set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for “shelter”—namely, that the structures are ADA accessible, that there is security on site, that the site has hygiene facilities, that the structures are ventilated, and that they include sanitary food preparation areas. In the letter, Johnson also notes that the five tiny house villages have case management and offer extended hours or 24/7 access.

“If basic shelters, which only allow people to come in overnight and sleep on floor with no services and amenities are classified as shelter, then permitted villages that meet the HUD requirements of shelter, and have amenities, services and outcomes that far exceed that of basic shelter, should also be classified as such,” Johnson wrote.

Alison Eisinger, head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which was responsible for what was then called the One-Night Count until All Home took over in 2017, called the reclassification of tiny house villages as shelter “Orwellian” and out of keeping with decades of established practice.

HUD’s minimum criteria for emergency shelter (Appendix A) also include additional requirements, such as smoke detectors in each unit, structural standards, compliance with fair housing rules, heating and cooling, and other requirements that Johnson did not mention in his letter.

The report also found a reduction in the number of veterans, young people, and chronically homeless people living outdoors. Of those three categories, the decrease in veteran and youth homelessness is a clear result of new investments in shelter and housing targeted at those specific populations. The apparent decline in the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness, however, could be a result of the methodology used to come up with that number, which is an extrapolation based on in-person interviews with chronically homeless individuals—defined as individuals who have experienced homelessness for a year or more or on four separate periods during a three-year span, and who also have a disabling condition that prevents them from working or going to school.

Extrapolating these numbers to Seattle (based on the percentage of the population , this finding would suggest that the number of chronically homeless unsheltered people—increased from just over 1,200 in 2017 to nearly 1,800 in 2018, then decreased to just over 600 people between 2018 and 2019. Since chronically homeless people are, by definition, people who are homeless year after year, and since there has not been any massive investment in new permanent supportive housing for hundreds of chronically homeless people in Seattle, the obvious conclusion is that these numbers are not an accurate guide to the actual number of unsheltered chronically homeless people in Seattle from year to year. A similar fluctuation can be seen in the number of unsheltered people with mental illness and substance use disorders—a pattern that probably reflects the challenges with the methodology All Home’s researchers use, rather than any wild fluctuation in the number of people living on the streets with mental illness and addiction from year to year.

Daniel Malone, the director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, says the surveys that serve as the basis for the counts of unsheltered people in various sub-populations may be to blame. “They survey people, then extrapolate out to the total number of people who are unsheltered, so if one year if you happen to interview a bunch of people who meet the criteria for chronic homelessness, and the next year you interview a bunch of people who don’t, then you’re going to end up multiplying a factor and applying it to the total number of unsheltered people,” Malone says. “I think you naturally have to be much less confident in that kind of demographic extrapolation.”

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Kira Zylstra, All Home’s acting director, acknowledges that “there is fluctuation with all of these numbers” based on survey data, “particularly with more refined slices of the data. … For chronically homeless and people with disabilities and other characteristics and needs, it’s dependent on a representative survey, which has even further limitations, as well as reported data” obtained through other sources.

To put a finer point on it, information obtained on sheltered people through the county’s Homeless Information Management System (HMIS) is generally pretty good, because it’s based on tracking individual people from year to year—a fact that’s reflected in the number of chronically homeless people in shelter, which has fluctuated only slightly between 2017 and now.

Information on chronically homeless people living on the streets is much less reliable for a number of reasons , including the fact that interview subjects are located by formerly homeless people themselves, who may gravitate to people and places they already know; the fact that people with major disabilities may face extra challenges that make them less likely to participate in lengthy, in-person interviews with researcher; and the fact that the survey results are extrapolated to apply to much larger populations, despite the fact that in the case of unsheltered people in particular, the survey itself may be unrepresentative.

This year,  the data on all chronically homeless individuals in King County is extrapolated using surveys with about 180 people, some of whom did not respond to all questions. Anything unrepresentative about this population will be multiplied and magnified when the researchers extrapolate from that small sample to the entire homeless population in King County and Seattle. For example, the researchers reached conclusions about the chronically homeless population by figuring out what percentage of survey respondents fit into certain categories—sheltered vs. unsheltered, individual vs. families, etc.—and multiplying that percentage by the total number of people in the general street count in those categories.

Malone, whose organization works primarily with chronically homeless people, says he hopes the extrapolated surveys of unsheltered people won’t be used to dictate policy or funding decisions or to fuel self-congratulatory press releases. He maintains that the best use of the count is as a general comparison of homelessness from year to year—by that standard, he says, the real story is that the unsheltered homeless population has declined as the number of shelter beds in Seattle has increased.