The Roots of the Crisis

"Seattle's homelessness crisis has been years in the making, and its roots run deep, touching racial inequity, economic disparities, mental health treatment, rising housing costs, mental health, addiction, and so much more. We have a responsibility to be honest that this crisis won't go away overnight. Lasting, meaningful progress will take years. But we still must act - and are acting - to improve life in Seattle." - Mayor Jenny Durkan

The Roots of Seattle's Homelessness Crisis

Homelessness is a systemic problem that touches not just every major American city, but every city in the Puget Sound region. While there are many root causes, in many cases adverse life events such as a health issue, the loss of a job, or the need to escape a domestic violence situation can quickly catapult our neighbors into homelessness. These root causes are inherently interconnected, and for our unsheltered neighbors each factor listed below, in many instances, they are compounded by each other. 

Mental Health and Addiction

Drug overdose is currently the leading cause of death among people who are homeless. In King County, more people enter detox for heroin than they do alcohol. In 2014, the 156 opiate overdose deaths were the highest ever recorded in King County - more than triple the number of deaths in 2009. More than 3,600 people received methadone treatment in King County, but our region's lack of treatment capacity leaves more than 150 people on a waitlist each day. Washington State ranks 47th in the nation for psychiatric beds per capita.

Economic Disparities & Poverty

Seattle has a booming economy and high-wage jobs. But too many residents are being pushed out in the face of rising housing and living costs, and the growth in our economy has not been shared nearly widely enough.

Lack of Affordable Housing

According to the Census Bureau, Seattle was the fastest growing city in the nation, increasing our population by almost 19 percent over the past ten years. Affordable housing development coupled with rising rents in the private market has not kept pace with the need. As the number of affordable units continue to decrease, the cost of housing continues to skyrocket; over the past six years, rents have increased 57%. A recent analysis has found that 47% of households that rent in the Seattle metro area are "housing cost burdened," meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent alone. In 2017, the Seattle Housing Authority opened its lottery for the Housing Choice Voucher program, which helps low-income families, individuals, seniors and people with disabilities pay their monthly rent in privately-owned apartments or house. More than 21,500 completed registrations were received for 3,500 places on the list. The City remains dedicated to creating affordable housing through the 2016 Seattle Housing Levy and other sources including incentive zoning and Mandatory Housing Affordability.  

Racial Disparities

People experiencing homelessness are disproportionately people of color. The systemic issues of racial inequity and the policies that drive that inequity is woven throughout our City. These disparities continue to show up in many ways - educational attainment, life expectancy and access to healthcare, access to affordable housing, and access to jobs training for family-wage jobs - and are key indicators in determining success in Seattle. Of the 21,500 applications to the 2017 SHA Housing Choice Voucher program, more than 35% came from people of color. Seattle was the first city in the nation to undertake the challenge of eliminating institutional racism, recognizing that our City government must have a role in promoting racial equity across the community.  

The Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system has failed to attain a comprehensive understanding of the drivers of homelessness. Booking criteria and sentencing guidelines do not reflect the historic and systemic issues of racial equity and social justice. This is a critical misstep: these analyses are necessary to ensure that compliance requirements do not criminalize those who are homeless.  

A Decentralized Response to a Regional Crisis

The response to the homelessness crisis has come from governments, businesses, service providers, philanthropists, and advocates across the region. Over the last decade, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested to address the crisis. The lack of coordination among governments and other stakeholders has limited the effectiveness of those investments. The response to homelessness has been divided among many agencies and government structures, with none having authority to establish clear priorities, reduce duplicative efforts, and align reporting measures across the board. For example, Seattle manages an extensive emergency shelter program, but the County manages all behavioral health programs - such unnecessary silos create barriers to critical services and complicate efforts to gather reliable data on programs' effectiveness. 

Lack of Wrap Around Services for Youth Within and Exiting the Foster System

One-third of homeless youth in King County have been in the child welfare system. Young people exiting the foster care system are at higher risk of becoming homeless. When children age out of the system at 18 years old, there is no established pathway for them to attain stable housing, education, or employment. The system has failed to strengthen families, ensure support through training, mental health and behavioral health services and provide culturally appropriate resources. 

How has Seattle been responding to this crisis?