What causes chronic homelessness in Seattle?

Chronic homelessness is one of the most complicated issues facing Seattle and King County. And the difficulty begins with scoping the problem itself. 

The first question in our four-part series on chronic homelessness comes from Courtney Stange-Tregear, who asks, “What are the primary causes of *chronic* homelessness as opposed to emergency or sudden homelessness?” 

King County’s Point in Time Count, conducted annually by an organization called All Home, is the best source of data on our region’s homelessness crisis, but its limited methodologies lead to imperfect data. When it comes to counting chronic homelessness — defined as living homeless for at least a year and facing a disabling mental or physical condition — the final tally is based on a smaller number of individual surveys. 

In other words, not every person experiencing chronic homelessness is physically counted. And because the surveys rely on having people self-report their own disabling conditions, it’s likely the number of folks facing chronic homelessness is actually much higher than the 2,213 figure that showed up in this year’s count. (A total of 11,199 people were counted as living homeless in 2019, and All Home estimates that between 20 and 30 percent of them would be considered chronically homeless.)

Survey limitations also make it difficult to use data to define the causes of chronic homelessness. But local service providers say it often comes down to rising housing costs.

A tipping point

Seattle — like many coastal cities — is becoming an increasingly expensive place to live. In the past decade, our median rent has risen from under $1,000 to more than $1,500, according to the latest U.S. census figures. That makes Seattle the most expensive city for renters outside of California. 

A 2018 report from Zillow showed a direct correlation between homelessness and the number of people in a community who are cost-burdened by housing — a benchmark where an individual or family spends 30 percent or more of their income on housing costs. In Seattle, the ratio between median rent and median household income has been hovering around the 30-percent mark for the past 10 years, according to the report. 

“This is not just a recent few years kind of phenomenon,” says Kira Zylstra, All Home’s acting director. “This has been building up over time.”

When it comes to chronic homelessness, the mix of underlying problems that lead to a person ending up in a shelter or sleeping outside are highly individual. But expensive housing makes all those problems more difficult to handle. Dealing with a chronic health issue, for example, is more manageable if you’re not already struggling to pay your bills.

Stuck in a cycle

Once a person starts living homeless, medical care and other supportive services can become harder to access. A recent Crosscut story examined the challenges that shelters face when trying to serve an increasingly aging homeless population with long-term illnesses like cancer, diabetes, and PTSD. 

The stigma around drug use can also play a role. Those facing addiction or using substances as a coping mechanism for other trauma will often be kicked out of shelters. Getting into mental health or substance abuse treatment is a big challenge, especially when more basic needs like finding food and a safe place to sleep still need to be met. 

At the end of the day, it’s about several systems failing to meet the needs of a vulnerable individual. Chronically homeless people, Zylstra says, have a much higher likelihood of having been incarcerated or having gone through the foster care system. 

“All those things are very interrelated,” she said. “We know that both from data as well as what we hear from community members.”

By Caitlin Moran
Caitlin writes newsletters and stories for The Evergrey. She's worked as a journalist in and around Seattle since 2010 and is a proud resident of Capitol Hill's Summit Slope neighborhood.