The 36th annual One Night Count conducted Friday morning is useful, but it does not provide the full picture of the work being done to address the homeless crisis.
Early Friday morning, more than 1,000 people, directed by All Home and Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, fanned out across King County to conduct the 36th annual One Night Count of the homeless. If the reaction is similar to previous years, the media and public will focus on the total number of homeless people counted and how that number compares to last year’s count.
While having a rough count of the overall number of people living on our streets is a valuable snapshot (some 4,505 persons were found sleeping outside — a 19 percent increase over 2015), it fails to provide the full picture of what is happening with our local efforts to address this crisis. And it perpetuates myths that undermine our ability to come together as a community to attain our shared goal of making homelessness a rare, brief and one-time experience.
“The problem is too big; we can’t solve homelessness” is perhaps the most common myth about homelessness. Yes, homelessness is a crisis in King County. The national data show that every $100 increase in average rents leads to a 15 percent increase in the number of people pushed into homelessness. With local rents skyrocketing, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine recently designated the problem an “emergency” akin to those created by natural disasters.
But we know what it takes to end homelessness and we have been making important progress. Over the last decade, we housed more than 40,000 people and created more than 6,000 units of permanent housing with supportive services, making King County one of the leading areas in the country in providing housing for the homeless.
A second myth is that “our efforts only draw more homeless people to our region.” At recent noisy public meetings in Ballard and Magnolia, a small but vocal contingent of Seattle residents angry about new tent cities in Ballard and Interbay and homeless people living in RVs have claimed that Seattle is a magnet for drug-addicted homeless people drawn by the supposedly generous benefits we provide.
The reality is just the opposite. Due primarily to substantial disinvestments at the federal level, and the lack of reduced state funding leading to a weak safety net, we lack sufficient resources to help those who need it. Before becoming homeless, 85 percent of those experiencing homelessness lived in King County. Nearly 40 percent of homeless people in our region are completely unsheltered. And people who experience homelessness in King County remain homeless on average for more than 100 days. We need to come together as a community to restore the resources that will help get people off our streets.
A third myth is that “homeless people are all criminals, addicts or mentally ill.” This myth is particularly dangerous because it wrongly labels and vilifies an entire group of extremely vulnerable people. Homeless people are families who must decide between food, medicine and rent. Homeless people are youths and young adults, abandoned and excluded from their own families for their sexual orientation. Homeless people are school-aged children who have no place to do their homework.
Homeless people are just people and they reflect the diversity of our larger society. The sooner we come together as a community with a sustained commitment to addressing this problem, the sooner we can achieve our goal of making homelessness rare, brief and one-time.