With homelessness continuing to rise, Seattle and King County need to employ both patience and innovation.

Share story

THIS is now a bleak annual ritual. King County learned this week what residents already know: Homelessness is getting worse. There are more than 11,600 homeless people in tents, cars and shelters on any given night.

For the sixth year in a row, the federally mandated point-in-time count of the homeless came in higher than the previous year’s. However, a change to a more comprehensive counting methodology by All Home King County, the countywide homeless coordinating board, renders comparisons to the past tenuous.

Nevertheless, by every measure, homelessness is worse.

It’s getting worse in other West Coast cities too. Los Angeles’s point-in-time count, also released last week, found a 23 percent jump despite a massive surge in spending on homeless interventions.

Patience is painful when it comes to homelessness strategies. As election season nears, candidates for Seattle mayor and City Council should embrace the plan and give it a chance to work before tossing it out...”

However, a silver lining in the King County count suggests that focused strategies can work. Homeless families rightly became a target of intense work, with high-profile philanthropic donations by Amazon and others supplementing reforms in government resources. The result: the count found 2,752 people in families in shelters versus just 81 living in tents, cars or the street. At least the parents with kids are mostly inside.

Other reforms are still underway, but it may take a few more bleak annual rituals to see if those are really going to work. Those reforms began last year when King County, Seattle, All Home and United Way funded consultants to pick apart current spending and to find a better plan.

The new plan emphasizes strategies based on data, not just on good intentions. It calls for emergency shelters with more social workers and less of “a hot and a cot” approach, and for using more cost-effective rental vouchers to get people quickly off the street. But those new strategies are just getting underway, aided by Seattle’s massive surge in spending.

Patience is painful when it comes to homelessness strategies. As election season nears, candidates for Seattle mayor and City Council should embrace the plan and give it a chance to work before tossing it out, especially in favor of an ever-larger surge in spending on strategies that have not made a dent.

The point-in-time count does spotlight a few areas that could use more attention.

First, more than 40 percent of the 5,484 people counted as unsheltered — not under a roof — were living in vehicles, by far the most common method of camping. Yet neither the new plan nor the old ones have a comprehensive strategy for getting them inside. Without a plan, they are left to drift among neighborhoods, in limbo, perpetuating the status quo.

Second, the new plan’s reliance on rental vouchers is struggling. Nearly 40 percent of the “Rapid Rehousing” vouchers issued to homeless people are not fulfilled. The superheated rental market certainly does not help, but Seattle is failing in its role of connecting the homeless and landlords. An open bid for a “landlord liaison” with private-market experience fizzled — leaving a disappointing gap in a critical component of the new plan. The Seattle City Council’s demonization of landlords undoubtedly doesn’t help.

Third, cities throughout the region need to treat this as a regional problem — not a Seattle problem. Citizen opposition to a new shelter in Bellevue, which that council approved, and to other treatment and mental-health facilities countywide, ignores the data from the point-in-time count: homelessness is everywhere in King County.

We can and must do better by our neighbors who fall into homelessness.