Maybe. It depends on how you count — but Seattle is definitely worse per capita than New York or L.A.

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King County has the third-largest population of homeless people in the country — or at least, that’s what we said in December. But readers wanted to know more:
“What does the concentration number mean?” one commenter asked. “Homeless per square mile? Relative to population? If we have the third largest homeless population in the country, do we have the largest concentration of homeless in the country per capita?”

Other frequently asked questions

That’s a great question. King County is the nation’s 13th-largest county, so if it has the third-largest population of homeless people, would that make it the worst in the country?

The first two questions the commenter asked are easy. The number (11,643) captures how many people were counted in King County while staying in shelters and sleeping outdoors or in vehicles on one night in January 2017.

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The third question, as far as we can tell, doesn’t get answered as much: Does Seattle have the largest percentage of people in homelessness?

The answer is maybe. Seattle’s concentration of homelessness is definitely worse than New York or L.A. Here’s why:

We looked at America’s largest 30 cities — cities with more than 600,000 people living within the city limits — and how they stacked up when we calculated homeless people per 10,000 population. This doesn’t capture all urban areas with large homeless populations; for instance, the island of Oahu and the Salinas Valley in California have high per capita homeless numbers but no cities with more than 600,000 people.

With that in mind, we calculated the top 10 homeless populations in America per 10,000 residents:

So why did taking Seattle’s population into account make it look better, instead of worse? There are two reasons:

First, not all cities count homeless people the same way. Seattle and King County have improved their methods of counting homeless people, but we have a high percentage of people living outside (almost half), who are much harder to count than people in shelters during the night of the count.

More importantly, because of the hodgepodge way local governments work together to get funding from the federal government, the areas we’re looking at are not all neatly within city boundaries. (They divide into what are painfully called “Continuums of Care”.)

New York City, for example, counts the homeless people inside its city limits while L.A. counts everyone in L.A. County except the cities of Pasadena, Glendale and Long Beach (which we accounted for). Denver and Boulder group together and count all the homeless people in the six counties around them.

Why does that matter? It makes cities like Seattle look like they have a lower concentration of people in homelessness. Seattle had a little less than a third of King County’s population in 2016, but it had 73 percent of the county’s homeless population in the one night count.

So what if you just calculate the city of Seattle and its number of homeless? Then it jumps above D.C., New York and L.A. — with 121 homeless people per 10,000.
Does Seattle, then, have the worst homelessness crisis in the country? It’s hard to tell because, again, of the hodgepodge way local governments count homelessness. Not all metro areas publish separate counts for cities and counties (as Seattle does). And some homeless camps don’t fall neatly within the boundary of a city.

But when people talk about a “homelessness crisis,” they often mean a lack of shelter — the heartbreaking number of people sleeping outside. So what if we just looked at how many people are unsheltered?

D.C., Boston and New York disappear from the top 10 entirely — and it is probably not a coincidence that those are all places with some form of a legal right to shelter. Seattle, like most West Coast cities, doesn’t guarantee access to shelter.

Another way to try and get rid of the messiness imposed by counties and cities is to count homelessness by state, which puts Washington at number five again.

If all this was too long, and you skipped to the end, here are our conclusions:

1. Counting people experiencing homelessness is messy and everyone does it differently.
2. Seattle’s homelessness crisis is, by scale, worse than New York City or Los Angeles’.
3. However you count it, Seattle, King County and Washington are all in the top 10 when it comes to homelessness.

And all of this could change again in a few weeks, when King County does its annual January homeless count again on Jan. 26.