A new Seattle Times poll finds overwhelming support to expand mental-health and substance-abuse treatment to address the homelessness crisis in King County, but deep distrust about elected leaders' ability to solve it.
King County residents looking for answers to the region’s homeless crisis favor long-term solutions — particularly more affordable housing or mental-health and drug treatment — but they severely doubt elected officials’ ability to actually solve the problem, according to a new Seattle Times poll.
Far more people said getting at the root causes of homelessness is a higher priority than getting people off the street. Despite at least $195 million spent in King County in 2017 on homelessness, roughly a third of respondents agreed it continues because it is a complex issue.
The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless poll, conducted by Seattle-based Elway Research, explores how King County residents feel about the homelessness crisis and potential solutions. The poll highlights where local residents stand after last year’s contentious debate over a head tax on big Seattle businesses to pay for homeless services and affordable housing, and amid ongoing discussions over the region’s unabated crisis.
The results of the poll reveal a more nuanced and complex picture than last year’s contentious debates might have indicated.
Most respondents, even those who supported a compassionate approach to homelessness, said throwing more money at the issue is not the answer. But hard-line strategies — such as a zero-tolerance policy on camping in public spaces — garnered far less support than longer-term strategies.
“Clearly, people think this is a serious problem,” said H. Stuart Elway, president of Elway Research. “And they appear to be willing to support a number of solutions to deal with it and want to deal with the root causes, and not just the manifestations of homelessness.”
The poll was conducted last month by cellphone and landline, resulting in a sample size of 407 people and a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent. Seventy-five percent of the respondents were homeowners, compared to about 57 percent in the county.
At least 21 people polled — about 5 percent of the total — said they had experienced homelessness themselves. More than twice that number said they had relatives who had been, or currently were, homeless.
“You’ve had a roof over your head all of your life, and all of a sudden you don’t after 60 years,” said Lloyd Houk of Newcastle, one of several poll respondents later interviewed by The Seattle Times. He favors more affordable housing as a solution. He was homeless for two years, living in a motor home parked in his friend’s backyard, before getting an apartment in November with the help of veteran’s services.
“I thought it would never happen to me, but then it did,” Houk said
Defining the problems
Most of the poll questions were multiple choice or involved a ranking system. But respondents were given a chance to answer one open-ended question: As you see it, what is the most common reason people are homeless?
Economic reasons — housing prices, lost jobs, rents that were too high — were cited by 44 percent of the poll respondents. Thirty-one percent cited addiction and substance use as the main cause of homelessness, and 26 percent mentioned mental illness.
A survey of homeless people in last year’s one-night count in King County found that about a quarter of homeless people cited job loss as the reason they had no place to live; about 21 percent of homeless people cited drugs and alcohol and 9 percent attributed their homelessness to mental illness.
Tyler Reutimann of Mercer Island, who participated in the poll, used to work with students with developmental disabilities, helping connect them to jobs. They struggled to find work, even with a lot of family support. If you don’t have that help, he said, “there’s nothing to do but be on the streets.”
That’s why he thinks treatment should be prioritized over more affordable housing, “because you can only build so many houses,” said Reutimann, 29. “Having systems in place to help people with mental disabilities or help people that have chemical dependencies goes a lot further than building a 200-story apartment.”
Asked to choose, from a variety of options, the most significant reason for homelessness, poll respondents were fairly evenly split between the area’s housing costs and cost of living, and a lack of services for those with mental illness or chemical dependency. Seattle residents were more likely to cite a lack of services than residents in suburban King County cities.
About a quarter of those asked about the most significant reason for the homeless crisis felt it was something about the region itself: either because they felt there are more tolerant attitudes and lax law enforcement here, or because services attract people to the region, a common refrain.
About 57 percent of respondents cited a problem with strategy or government as the reason why homelessness remains so entrenched.
Reutimann is among them. He did not support Seattle’s head tax on business because of a lack of faith in local government and what he called “the Seattle process.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me (that) you are going to tax the people who are making money, (and) give it to a city government that has been pretty inept, in my opinion,” he said.
Despite a homeless population that has risen significantly in the last five years, nearly three out of five poll respondents said it was possible to solve the worst of the crisis. Nearly a quarter thought the issue could be solved entirely. Only 14 percent said it was unsolvable.
In terms of how to do that, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they wanted to get at the root of the issue. Fewer than a third said the focus should be on getting people off the street.
Cora Riley, who lives in South Seattle and is one of the 65 percent of respondents who prioritized root causes, is totally against the city’s policy of removing homeless encampments. “If they want to provide services to the homeless, they can think about Honey Buckets (portable toilets) and garbage cans, not law enforcement,” said Riley, 34.
Elaine Phelps of Federal Way, however, says getting people off the streets, especially in the winter, should be a priority. She herself was homeless after her place burned down in North Carolina. She and her children lived in a homeless shelter for six months. “I’ve had to sleep in my car overnight,” said Phelps, 50, whose daughter, niece and a friend are currently homeless. “I can only imagine what it’s like to sleep outside.”
Given a list of six potential solutions that other communities have tried — from affordable housing to strictly enforcing a ban on camping in parks — 94 percent of respondents expressed support for increasing access to mental-health and drug treatment. Approval for this strategy cut across many demographic groups, with people young and old, renters and homeowners, and Seattle and suburban residents in nearly unanimous agreement.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan “agrees 100 percent” with that approach, and was pressing the state and federal government for more behavioral-health services, said spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower.
Last month, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a $675 million proposal to fund hundreds of new community mental-health beds and to partner with the University of Washington to create a behavioral-health-focused teaching hospital.
On the question of what solutions to attempt in King County, more than four out of five respondents said they either strongly approved or approved of more affordable housing, which numerous studies have said the region desperately needs. Every single poll respondent age 18 to 35 supported this measure.
Although respondents favored more treatment options and housing, the poll reflected their frustrations with the proliferation of tent camps. Fifty-five percent of those polled said they’d like to see a zero-tolerance policy that prevents camping in parks and public spaces — an ongoing concern in Seattle, as camps repeatedly pop up in green spaces. This was a more popular strategy among older people than among those ages 35 and under.
“Ignoring people and letting them sleep in parks lets us ignore the situation,” said David Baer, 65, of West Seattle. Parks should be for everyone, he said, “but we have to find other spaces that we can provide the necessary sanitary services” like toilets and showers.
But fewer people supported the hardest-line approach listed in the poll, requiring homeless people to prove they are from the area before they can access shelter, a version of which was previously tried in Philadelphia in the 1990s. Fifty-eight percent said they disapproved of the strategy, versus 38 percent who supported it.
Asked who should do more to solve the problem, a little more than one-third of respondents suggested business could do much more. But even more respondents thought homeless people should be doing more to help themselves. Younger people, 18 to 35, and renters were more likely to want more help from the state and federal governments than people 65 and up and homeowners.
Respondent Glena Felker, of Kirkland, says she has a lot of compassion for homeless people. But she still sometimes sees people sitting on the side of the road for hours every day, asking for money. “If they could wash dishes for 8 or 10 hours day, if they are physically capable of doing it, would that keep them from asking for money? I don’t know.”
Yet she admitted she faces financial uncertainties. At age 62, she makes less now than she did in her 20s. “I just have a lot of compassion for the people who find themselves in that place,” Felker said. “I don’t think anybody wants to be there.”
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Despite respondents’ desire for more long-term solutions, and for their governments to do more, the poll showed that 68 percent of Seattle residents polled do not trust that Mayor Durkan and the Seattle City Council can solve the problem.
Similarly, 70 percent of respondents who live outside of Seattle said they don’t trust that County Executive Dow Constantine or the Metropolitan King County Council can solve the problem.
Constantine’s office declined to comment without seeing the entire poll, which The Seattle Times declined to provide before publication.
In an emailed response, Durkan’s spokeswoman repeated a common talking point among local elected officials: Homelessness is a regionwide problem that requires a regionwide effort.
“It will take everyone — government, business, philanthropists, service providers, people with lived experience — to both address the root causes and move people off the streets and into permanent housing,” said Hightower.
On the whole, poll respondents agreed with her: 60 percent said addressing the crisis should involve the whole region and not just Seattle, though that’s the center of the county’s homeless population.
That attitude may signal good news for Seattle and King County. Durkan and Constantine also recently announced plans to begin combining homelessness services, which are currently scattered over six government departments.
The respondents’ distrust of elected officials’ ability to address homelessness could resonate in November’s Seattle City Council elections. So far, three council members — Sally Bagshaw, Rob Johnson and Bruce Harrell — have announced they will not seek re-election. All seven council seats representing districts will be on the ballot.
Riley, from South Seattle, would like to see her elected officials lead by example and encourage Seattle residents to be more accepting of homeless people.
“I think tolerance is a bigger problem than the actual people being on the streets,” she said. People who’ve managed to get a job or an apartment think everyone should be able, and want, to do the same. “I think that’s a very slippery slope to go down, because it implies we’re all the same and we have to make the same decisions as each other.”