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News / Northwest

Does Seattle bear the burden of King County’s homelessness? Kinda

By Greg Kim, The Seattle Times
Published: March 5, 2023, 2:11pm

For years, Seattle officials have alleged that King County’s suburbs are pushing “their” homeless people into Seattle.

“More people are coming here because the regional cities are not providing support,” Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said in 2021, expressing frustration that other cities were not helping pay for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

As Seattle tripled its spending on homelessness over the past eight years, the region’s unhoused population continued to swell. Consecutive mayors have called on neighboring cities to pitch in to make commensurate increases.

“We need their resources too. We need their skin in the game. Because our skin is in the game,” Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said in a speech about the city’s homelessness plan in 2022.

A Seattle Times analysis shows they are right — sort of.

In a first-of-its-kind analysis, The Seattle Times compared the overall budgets, spending on homelessness service providers and the location of homelessness services among the 39 cities in King County to find that Seattle allocates significantly more resources to homelessness in proportion to its population and budget.

The analysis was made possible by new data included in the proposed King County Regional Homelessness Authority five-year plan released in January, as well as federal data and documents obtained by The Times from former Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration.

The hub city gave more than 16 times as much as the rest of the cities in the county combined to homelessness service providers in 2022. And it holds two-thirds of the county’s homeless shelter beds.

But whether that draws people to the city in search of shelter and services is less clear.

Seattle outspends suburbs

Christopher Powell, a truck driver, had been living in Kent when a traffic violation put him out of a job. After losing his wallet and his only form of identification, he moved to Seattle in January to stay at a shelter near Pioneer Square.

“Kent doesn’t have any place I could stay,” Powell said.

Kent, like most cities in South King County, has few options for homeless people — 82 shelter beds, all designated for women and children.

While almost a quarter of the region’s residents who use homelessness services say they last had stable housing in South King County, only 11% of its shelter beds are located there — the greatest disparity between available resources and need, according to a Times analysis of Regional Homelessness Authority data.

Seattle’s percentage of the county’s shelter beds — 67% — is far greater than the percentage of people who say they lived in Seattle before they became homeless — 36%.

Harrell’s office said The Times’ findings deserve further analysis by the Homelessness Authority and other stakeholders.

“There is clearly more work to do to ensure people in every city and community across King County can access those critical services,” the mayor’s office said in a statement.

Some officials say these numbers are not the whole story.

Mosqueda, who is running for King County Council, said that South King County cities don’t have sole responsibility for serving people who last had stable housing there. In part, that’s because of the domino effect of Seattle’s high housing costs.

“People are getting actively displaced from the city of Seattle,” Mosqueda said.

Research supports her claim. A study by the Urban Displacement Project at the University of California, Berkeley, showed that residents in South King County faced the highest risk of losing their housing in part because poorer residents and communities of color have been pushed south of Seattle.

Rent for a one-bedroom unit in Auburn is 13% lower on average than in Seattle, according to ApartmentList.com, but average household incomes are 25% lower than in Seattle, according to the U.S. census.

Auburn is one of the biggest spenders on homelessness services in the county, and Mayor Nancy Backus said city officials are doing what is in their capacity to spend on homelessness.

“There is not an adequate way to compare the budgets of any two cities — least of all a city like Auburn to Seattle,” said Backus, who is also a member of the Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing committee.

A direct comparison between Seattle and Auburn’s raw spending on homelessness services is difficult, with one city’s budget in the billions and the other in the millions, but experts suggest other ways to determine whether cities are pulling their weight.

Homelessness spending in context

Seattle bears a disproportionate burden when comparing cities’ homelessness spending in proportion to their overall budgets, their overall population and the number of people who become homeless there.

Out of the 38 King County suburbs, Auburn, the second biggest spender, gave about $820,000 to homelessness service providers in 2022 — 0.3% of its annual budget.

Bellevue was first to the tune of $1.6 million in 2022, which amounted to 0.2% of its overall budget.

Seattle gave $118 million, or 1.7% of its budget last year to the Regional Homelessness Authority.

As part of drafting its five-year plan, the agency aggregated the amount that all municipalities in King County provide to homelessness service providers. Some cities, including Seattle, spend more on city-managed homelessness services outside that. Officials also contend it was an undercount, because it did not include all of what they call homelessness-related spending, such as rent assistance.

Twenty cities told the Regional Homelessness Authority they either spent nothing directly on homelessness services or didn’t respond to the agency’s inquiries, while some of these cities are also making living outside tougher.

Mercer Island in East King County has no shelter space, donated $20,000 — less than 0.1% of its budget — to homelessness services administered outside its borders and passed a law in 2021 banning camping in public spaces. Mercer Island’s mayor declined an interview with The Seattle Times.

Another way to compare cities’ homelessness spending is to look at it in proportion to population.

When four cities in North King County voted to start contributing to the Regional Homelessness Authority, they set a minimum amount they would spend on homelessness services at $1.70 per capita. Some of those cities provide slightly more than that.

By comparison, Seattle spent $160 per capita on local homelessness services. Bellevue and Tukwila spent the next most at $11 and $12 per capita.

Or, look at cities’ spending in proportion to just their homeless populations, said Dennis Culhane, a homelessness expert at the University of Pennsylvania.

Through that lens, Seattle still spent 12 times more than the rest of the county on each homeless person who last had stable housing in the city.

Are people moving to find services?

Does all that spending and shelter capacity draw people from outside the city?

Data collected by Durkan’s administration showed that slightly more than half of all people accessing homelessness services in Seattle last had stable housing in other places, split between other cities in King County and outside its borders.

So did more than half of the homeless population in Issaquah — a much smaller city — according to data collected by outreach workers there.

Similarly, shelters in East King County see half of their clients from outside the area, according to nonprofit Congregations for the Homeless, which operates men’s homeless shelters there.

Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones said people are forced to migrate to access services, but not necessarily in one direction.

“The narrative is better framed as, ‘People have to move around the county,’ not ‘They have to move to Seattle,'” Dones said.

The agency wants to reduce the “hyperconcentration” of homelessness services in certain neighborhoods of Seattle in favor of wider and more “comprehensive geographic coverage” of services around the county.

“Every community has to be able to support their own,” Dones said.

Alejandra Santos, an outreach worker based in South King County for homelessness nonprofit REACH, said she has not seen people leaving the area for Seattle.

“They are born and raised in South King County, so they’re not moving,” Santos said.

Camping bans in Kent and other cities in South King County push people to the outskirts, hidden in the woods, not to Seattle, Santos said.

Experts say that homeless people more often move to find work or have a new housing situation, not to get services.

“It’s hard to imagine that someone is moving somewhere so they can go sit in some bad shelter in another city,” said homelessness researcher Culhane.

Culhane also said that about a quarter of the adult homeless population is coming directly from an institutional setting concentrated in larger cities like Seattle. Most often that’s jail, but it can also include hospitals, substance abuse treatment or psychiatric treatment.

Some cities step up

Seattle has been providing for the county’s homelessness services for decades, acknowledged David Bowling, executive director of Congregations for the Homeless. But East King County has stepped up in recent years.

Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland agreed a decade ago to collectively expand temporary housing. Kirkland would add a women’s shelter, Redmond would take care of youth and young adults and Bellevue would handle men.

The Eastside now has 14% of the county’s emergency housing beds, while data shows 5% of the region’s homeless last had stable housing there.

Most of the shelter beds are in Bellevue, with another facility in Eastgate set to open this year.

“There are a lot of people in Bellevue shelters that don’t want to be in Seattle shelters because they don’t feel safe there,” said Bellevue Mayor Lynn Robinson.

While still far from Seattle’s disproportionate services and spending, more cities are also closing the gap.

In December, four North King County cities agreed to contribute to the Regional Homelessness Authority. One of them, Lake Forest Park, had not funded any homelessness services before.

“There’s a resource deficit, and solving that resource deficit is going to take all 39 cities, the county, the state and the federal government, because we are talking about being billions of dollars behind in what we need to get done,” authority CEO Dones said.

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