There is definitely a connection, but it’s not the entire cause.

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Since The Seattle Times launched Project Homeless, we have heard many questions asked, again and again, as readers try to understand the growing and complex homelessness crisis. We will try to answer some of the most common questions, and we welcome new ones. Send them to

Other frequently asked questions

Q: Are most homeless people living outside because of drug abuse?

A: There is definitely a connection, but it’s not the entire cause.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

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A report issued earlier this year by the King County medical examiner spotlighted the problem: Overdoses were the leading cause of death among homeless people in King County in 2017, in a year when there were overall a record number of homeless deaths.

Overdoses from drugs or alcohol among younger homeless people — ages 15-24 — were more than twice as common as overdoses among people the same age who weren’t homeless, according to the report.

That report aligns with other data points about the overall opioid problem: King County saw a record number of overdose deaths in 2016, the most recent year comprehensive data is available; three out of five of them were from opioids.

It is not a coincidence that big unsanctioned homeless camps along the Interstate 5 greenbelt (including The Jungle) are near methadone clinics in Sodo. But people who stay in those camps, and are more likely to resist services, are a subset of the homeless population.

In fact, there are more families with children than chronically homeless people, which make up about a quarter of King County’s homeless population.

It is also inaccurate to pin King County’s homeless crisis just on substance abuse. The county’s 2017 point-in-time count of homelessness included a survey of homeless people, and about 36 percent acknowledged a substance-abuse problem. Almost half of the people surveyed said they did not use drugs or alcohol. That is consistent with national surveys, although the self-reported survey may undercount the real prevalence.

To address the obvious need for more drug treatment, King County has added treatment beds, including a much-needed detox facility on Beacon Hill, and is launching a treatment-on-demand program.

One last data point: In the King County medical examiner’s report, only a third of the deaths among homeless people were due to overdose.

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