The complex and emotional nature of the homelessness crisis often leads to misconception and myth, which can hinder efforts to pursue effective solutions.
In an effort to better understand the area’s homeless population and their needs, and better inform the City’s response, the Seattle Department of Human Services recently contracted with Applied Survey Research to conduct a large-scale homeless needs assessment. With the assistance of interviewers who had experienced homelessness themselves, 1,050 unsheltered individuals were contacted and multiple focus groups were held with 80 attendees in late November.
The survey results released March 3 served to dispel several commonly-held myths about the City’s homelessness crisis by revealing that:
1. Most of Seattle’s homeless population is from here, with nearly 70 percent living in Seattle/King County when they most recently became homeless. This counters the notion of “Freattle” — the oft-repeated claim that Seattle draws other states’ homeless people with the promise of free services. In fact, most of those living unsheltered say they fell into homelessness while already here, which is “consistent with other communities who solicit this information,” according to the report.
2. Family and jobs, not handouts, are the reason most people come to Seattle. More than 35 percent of those surveyed who were not from Seattle said they came here to be with friends and family, and more than 33 percent they came seeking work. Only 15 percent said they came to access homeless services. According to the report, “the survey suggests that the length of time of local residence is probably not too different from the general population and people come to the area to access their personal safety nets, job opportunities, and for other common reasons.”
3. For the vast majority of those surveyed, living outside is not their first choice. They want housing. From the report:
Ninety-three percent (93%) of survey respondents reported that they would move inside if safe, affordable housing were available. This is commonly referred to as the “homeless by choice” question and suggests that the “traveler” or “nomadic” sojourner does not represent a significant group.
Rental assistance (68 percent) and housing affordability (65 percent) were the top two answers given by respondents when asked what they needed to obtain housing.
4. Employment and education alone are no safeguard against homelessness, and many of those living unsheltered do work. While more than half of respondents said they were unemployed or unable to work, 41 percent said they are currently working in some capacity (full-time, part-time, temporarily, or seasonally), and 35 percent reported completing some college or attaining a college degree.
“This survey was an opportunity to hear directly from people experiencing homelessness in Seattle about who they are, how they became homeless and how we can best offer help,” said Mayor Ed Murray. “In taking this in-depth look, the City confirmed known needs like more affordable housing, as well as treatment and support for mental health and substance abuse disorders. It also showed the significant racial disparities and that homelessness disproportionately impacts the LGBTQ community. Because little help has come, particularly from the federal government, this assessment clearly shows Seattle must expand its investment in what is most needed, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, if we are going to address the crisis of homelessness.
“The City’s work under Pathways Home emphasizes the need for this individualized approach to offering services,” said Mayor Murray, “and this assessment offers a better understanding of the complex set of needs that can inform that work.”
“It’s very important that we talk to the people affected by homelessness so we can direct our city resources more precisely, but also look system-wide to make sure our “safety-net” has the support that homeless individuals say they need to move into housing successfully,” said Catherine Lester, Director of the City’s HSD. “While the results may not be all-together surprising, they are important touch points to inform our community’s work to provide a more efficient and effective system to move people out of homelessness.”
To read the full survey, click here.