Are people flocking to Seattle for our homeless services?

This is the first part of our answer to a reader question. Read Part 2 here. What else are you curious about around homelessness in Seattle? Let us know here.

Over the last couple weeks, you shared some of your most pressing questions about homelessness with us. Last week, you voted for us to answer this question from reader Craig Danz: “Does Seattle get an influx of homeless people from outside areas attracted to better services?”

Craig told us he wanted to know whether there’s hard evidence to back up the concept of “Free-attle” — the belief that our city attracts people experiencing homelessness because of abundant services with lax rules.

As a housing advocate, Craig said he sees people of all backgrounds — including many of his more liberal friends — pushing the idea of “Free-attle.” But “it’s hard to find evidence to back that [idea] up,” he told us.

If the system really was overburdened by people outside the city or the state, it might actually change my mind about the best policy approaches,” Craig told us. “But we all prefer to assume the facts that best fit our existing policy preferences”

Craig wasn’t alone in wanting to know more about this. Of the 233 questions y’all sent in, 12 percent of them asked something similar. 

King County has the third largest homeless population in the our country, and is in its third year of a declared homelessness state of emergency. So: Is there an influx of homeless folks from outside Seattle coming to the city for its services? To begin to answer this question, let’s look at the data.

WHAT THE NUMBERS TELL US 

There’s one report to rule them all when it comes to understanding homelessness in Seattle — All Home’s Count Us In point-in-time survey. This year’s snapshot, taken one night in late January, estimates there were 12,112 people experiencing homelessness across our county. That’s up from 11,643 last year.

DID THEY BECOME HOMELESS HERE?

Yes, mostly. To be more specific: A large majority lost their housing while living in King County. A smaller majority lost their housing while living in Seattle. And there’s no evidence in the data of any recent spike in outsiders. Here’s what the numbers say:

  • About 83 percent of folks surveyed this year said they’d been living here in King County when they lost their housing. That’s up from 77 percent in 2017.
  • 52 percent of folks surveyed this year said they were living in Seattle when they became homeless. (The 2017 report didn’t ask that, so there’s nothing to compare it to yet.)
  • And in 2014, based on data shared by All Home on behalf of homeless services providers, 86 percent of people checked into services like shelters with ZIP codes from within King County’s borders — but those numbers are imprecise, The Seattle Times reported.
(📸: @thecaveat)

HOW MANY OF THEM ARE FROM HERE?

Many of our houseless neighbors aren’t recent arrivals. In a survey this year, about a third said they were born or grew up in the county. An additional 21 percent said they’d lived in King County for more than a decade. And about 11 percent said they’d lived here for less than a year.

HOW MANY AREN’T?

About 11 percent said they lived elsewhere in Washington State when they lost their housing. About 6 percent said they were from out of state.

WHY DO WE RELY ON ALL HOME’S REPORT FOR ALL THIS?

In short, because it appears to be the best data set we have to understand the magnitude of the problem in our region.

Our annual point-in-time counts have always had their shortcomings. They rely on self-reported data, the current report goes back just a couple years (a prior, similar annual survey called the One Night Count tracked homelessness going back to the 1970s), and though they’ve evolved to become more comprehensive over time, there’s plenty they don’t ask. But these counts are — as far as we know — the only regularly updated public survey of locals experiencing homelessness that we have.

“No one else is doing a better version of the one-night count that we can choose from, and that’s really a product of the fact that this country has not done data analysis of people experiencing homelessness before 10 years ago,” said Eric Bronson, YWCA Seattle’s digital advocacy manager.

Kira Zylstra, acting director at All Home King County, cited the existence of “hidden homelessness” and people who don’t want to be counted.

“This is one source of data in our community and it’s not the full picture,” Kira told us. “No community has a 100 percent accurate method for counting individuals.”

WHAT DO ADVOCATES THINK OF THE CLAIM THAT OUTSIDERS ARE FLOCKING TO SEATTLE?

“It’s a myth that won’t die,” said Daniel Malone, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center.

Why? Stay tuned for part 2 of our answer in tomorrow’s newsletter. Got more questions about homelessness in Seattle? We’ll be answering a second question next month.

WHAT ELSE ARE YOU CURIOUS ABOUT AROUND HOMELESSNESS?

The Evergrey will be answering one new reader question on the topic in the coming weeks, and guess what? We won’t be the only ones. Crosscut, GeekWire, KUOW, Patch, ParentMap, Real Change, and Seattlepi.com will all be hearing and answering locals’ deep down honest questions in a collaborative project we’re launching today. 🎉

Got a new question you’d love to see answered? » Go here to ask it » and any of these awesome local outlets might report out your answer. 👍

Big thanks to our partners — GeekWire, Crosscut, Seattlepi.com, Real Change, Patch, ParentMap, and KUOW for accepting our invite to join in this project; to Crosscut for coordinating #SeaHomeless Day today; to Hearken for letting us use their tool for this collaborative local project; and to all of you for thinking and caring about your city.