The math of the homeless crisis is daunting.

Take, for instance, a recent estimate done by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority that says ending homelessness in the county would take more than $8 billion to build tens of thousands of new housing units, plus up to $3.5 billion in annual operating costs. To put that in perspective, $8 billion is twice what Gov. Jay Inslee’s current budget proposal asks the state to borrow to build more affordable housing and shelters for all of Washington.

Already, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by Seattle and the county to deal with unhoused people, yet the numbers of folks living on the streets in sleeping bags, tents and motor vehicles has continued to increase. One survey of the local homeless population puts their numbers at more than 13,000. Another claims there are three times as many as that.

Whatever the real number may be, it is clear that half of those who are homeless have serious health problems, including 31% who are dealing with mental health issues and 37% who are hooked on one drug or another. To address that chronic problem, the county will be asking voters to approve a ballot measure in April that would create five new mental and behavioral health crisis centers. There is no doubt such services are needed, but here’s another number: The price tag for this plan reads $1.25 billion.

Added together, that is a whole lot of billions to address the needs of a relatively small number of our fellow citizens. It is a pipe dream to think that our elected officials can find a way to come up with that much additional revenue, so “ending” homelessness seems unlikely. That is also because of other big numbers: Short of a major economic calamity, housing prices are not going to drop in this region. They could level off, they could sink a little here and there, but King County is now one of the most expensive places to live in the country and that is not going to change.

As a result, unless people on the low end of the economic spectrum vote with their feet and move to less expensive towns, we will have a homelessness problem to manage for a long time to come. The tough question is, how much are we willing – or able – to spend to deal with it?

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