Why King County homelessness efforts keep failing
January 20, 2022
Last month the King County Regional Housing Authority announced it was forgoing its homelessness count for the second year in a row. Instead, they plan to “conduct qualitative engagement with people living unsheltered to learn more about their experiences and how we can better meet their needs.”
This dysfunctional approach to a regional crisis aptly summarizes much of the county’s ineffective or counterproductive efforts on this issue. Despite all the spending by the county on new programs and services, Seattle metro’s homelessness population grew from 9,000 in 2010 to 11,800 in 2020.
One familiar definition of insanity, trying the same thing over and over while expecting different results, applies here; the county keeps throwing more taxpayer money at this critical issue and the results actually get worse.. Back in 2005 it launched a now defunct plan to end homelessness within a decade. The plan was backed by 30 nonprofits, private businesses, and local governments.
Yet it didn’t succeed for a variety of reasons, including:
- A highly unrealistic overall objective
- Failure to pinpoint the primary cause for homelessness
- Failure to meet specific metrics outlined in the plan
The 2005 plan was rooted in the belief that more housing would solve the problem. Between 2005-2015, the county added 3,720 new housing units and claims to have ended homelessness for almost 40,000 people. However, by the end of the 10-year timeline the homeless population has still grown.
Eventually the plan was scrapped, with a variety of claims for why it failed.
Director of All Home King County Mark Putnam, who worked on the plan, admitted that its goal “had been unrealistic, as the reality is that no community has ever been able to achieve 0% homelessness.”
The other flaw is treating homelessness as primarily an economic or housing dilemma. A 2020 McKinsey report claimed a lack of affordable housing was driving people onto the street, yet admitted “exact data are hard to compile.” It simply says “it can be safely assumed” half of extremely low-income renters in the region experienced homelessness over a year’s timeframe, though no methodology or surveys are included to justify this estimate.
In his recent book, San Fransicko, Michael Shellnberger pushes back on this fictional economic claim. He makes a convincing case that the very term “homelessness” is purposely misleading, as the problem progressive led cities such as San Francisco and Seattle face, is due to open air drug markets and untreated mental illness.
When most people can’t afford rent, they move to somewhere more affordable. In December a survey revealed half of King County residents intended to leave in the next five years, citing housing costs as one of the primary reason.
In contrast, when people afflicted with mental health issues or addictions don’t get the help they need, they end up on the street. Homeless advocates recently reported to King 5 that out of the roughly 50 people living in a park right next to Seattle’s Broadview-Thomson K-8, 80 percent of them had mental health or substance abuse problems.
These observations match a recent study that concluded “mental health and addiction are some of the leading causes of homelessness” in the state, noting that Washington has the third-highest rate of mentally ill adults in the nation. The study also observed that the state ranked almost dead in the nation last when it came to inpatient psychiatric bed capacity.
Why does this matter? Because if you don’t understand the cause of a problem, you’ll never solve it. Worse, if you misdiagnose it, you’ll provide a solution that doesn’t work. King County is an extremely expensive place to live, but that problem is driving an impending exodus from the region rather than into homelessness encampments.
The lack of accountability when it comes to spending on homelessness at all levels of government offers numerous ways to leech off taxpayers. Recently several former homeless people told The Seattle Times that the head of a group hired by the local school district to do homeless outreach near Broadview-Thompson K-12 was pressuring people to help him buy drugs. According to The Times, no competitive process was used and no background check had been conducted.
The crisis will end when the county and others involved make a workable plan rather than just spending more money, allowing substance abusers to maintain their addictions, or asking homeless people how they should be taken care of. We can’t expect to see real progress until then.