Homelessness numbers not as definitive as advocates say

Political leaders, especially in Seattle, are grappling with a growing homelessness problem. With greater visibility, an uptick in property crimes, and shocking headlines such as the Jungle murders, the public is increasingly keyed in to the issue.

As our elected leaders contemplate what they can do to confront the problem, they need good data and good ideas. They also need to acknowledge that our local ten-year plan to end homelessness hasn’t worked, obviously. In fact, such plans haven’t worked in a lot of places.

Housing First shows promise, but can create its own issues
That’s not to say there aren’t positive trends and real accomplishments happening. Most advocates for the homeless now back the idea of Housing First, and it has a lot to recommend it. Under a Housing First approach, the long-term homeless, who almost always have mental health and addiction issues, aren’t expected to get sober and seek treatment before receiving help. People are given the stability of a place to stay, then underlying causes are addressed through mental health and substance abuse programs.

That’s the theory, anyway, but Vancouver’s experience shows that housing the local long-term homeless is actually the easy part:

“All the planning was based on the assumption that if you built enough housing everybody would go in and everything would be hunky dory,” says [city councilor Kerry] Jang.

“As it turns out … it ain’t that easy.”

Vancouver’s “end homelessness” strategy did briefly work. The middle-aged alcoholics who comprised most of the city’s street homeless in 2008 were all mostly housed within a few years.

But just as the homeless count dropped close to double digits in 2011, what Jang calls a “new generation” of homeless started flooding into the city. Coming from as far away as Ontario, these new multitudes are younger, drug addicted, aggressive and known for refusing help.

Do some cities attract new homeless?
Vancouver and Portland are our closest metropolitan neighbors but also similar in terms of climate, politics, and cultural mores. All three cities are dealing with similar homelessness issues. An official from Portland’s Multnomah County Human Services said, “People, especially youth, are staying homeless for longer, and are showing up with more challenges, a higher level of need than we’ve seen in years past.”

That some cities attract out-of-area homeless individuals seems pretty obvious, as a Simon Fraser University study on homelessness in Vancouver concluded:

Homeless people know that Vancouver has better services, citizens who give to panhandlers and police officers who are accustomed to the unnerving tics that come with heroin addiction or untreated mental illness, says the study’s lead author.

“The word is out that there are certain places in Canada … where those behaviors will be more likely tolerated,” says the SFU study’s lead author Julian Somers, adding that it’s “not really that remarkable a finding” that homeless people are moving into Vancouver.

Local survey brings up more questions than it answers
That some cities or some services attract new homeless residents may be true, but that doesn’t mean everyone wants to acknowledge it. That seems to be the case with a recent Seattle Times story.

The headline sounded very definitive: “King County’s homeless are overwhelmingly from here,” it said. The numbers in the article, provided by homeless services organization, aren’t so definitive.

Homeless service providers ask questions of those seeking help, including their ZIP code of last residence. Based on those responses (minus those deemed inaccurate), the article concludes that 86% were from King County and another 6% said they were from elsewhere in Washington.

Clearly this survey has some pretty flawed methodology (and the article does include many caveats about the data). First and foremost, 30% of those asked didn’t answer the question. Most likely many in that 30% were concerned their eligibility for services might be based on time of residency and did not want to say they were from elsewhere. Further, of those who did answer, 5.4% gave an answer that was deemed inaccurate for one reason or another.

Not to mention, there doesn’t seem to be a set definition of residency used here, nor is length of residency asked about. With no set definition and no further data collected, it’s pretty hard to say we know that the local homeless population is “overwhelmingly from here.” At the very least, it’s highly unlikely that the actual number is anywhere near 86% local and 92% in-state.

Does it matter? They’re still people who need help. But our policymakers do need to know if the policies they’re enacting and programs they’re funding, as well as Seattle’s “homeless-friendly reputation” as the Times put it, are helping to grow the area’s homeless population even as they’re helping some get off the street. Anecdotally, that seems clear – and the datasets we have to work with aren’t answering the question.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.