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November 2018

Research debunks myths about homelessness

Contrary to common questions and assumptions, Seattle and King County are not magnets for people experiencing homelessness.

The Housing Development Consortium and Project Homelessness, a Seattle Times initiative, reached that conclusion from a survey of more than 800 homeless people. Only 3 percent of respondents said they came to King County to access homeless services or benefits. (Researchers noted that number could be low since the survey doesn't ask people who have been in King County for a few years why they originally came here.)

A representative of the research firm that conducts the annual point-in-time counts of homelessness in King County and various cities in California said questions about homeless people's previous home are common in every city.

The latest point-in-time count revealed about 83 percent of those who became homeless were already living in King County, with only 5.6 percent living out of state before they were homeless. The remainder lived in Pierce County (4.6 percent), Snohomish County (3.2 percent) and other counties around the state (3.5 percent).

When asked how long they lived in King County prior to becoming homeless, more than one of every four respondents (25.2 percent) said they were born or grew up here. Another 15.2 percent had lived in King County for a decade or more, with only 13 percent living in the county for less than one year.

Those who lived outside King County cited a variety of reasons that prompted them to move to the county:

4.8%    Job/seeking work
3.4 %   Services/benefits (homeless or veteran)
2.8%    Family/friends here
1.0%    Traveling/visiting and remained
1.5%    No answer
3.4%    Other

Researchers and reporters emphasize the survey is not a "rigorous academic study," in part because it relies on self-reported information.

In a report published in the Times last month, reporter Scott Greenstone, the paper's Project Homeless engagement editor, examined studies from various sources and cities, including New York City, Philadelphia, and Vancouver, B.C. "Studies have shown that people do migrate for shelter and help," he noted. As in King County, there are "small chunks" of the homeless population in these other cities who came from elsewhere.

The latest Project Homeless report published in the Seattle Times also noted the point-in-time findings differ in some ways with data collected by shelters or homeless-service providers. For example, the Homeless Management Information System found around 64 percent of the subjects in that report indicated they last had housing within King County.

Reporter Greenstone concluded there is scant evidence to show the homeless population in Seattle and King County "has exploded primarily because lots of people came from outside the state." He acknowledges research hasn't definitely answered the question of how many homeless people migrate just to get help, adding, "We know that in King County, 3 percent said they did."

Project Homeless is a Seattle Times initiative that explores and explains the region's complex, troubling problem of homelessness. Its reporting strives to spotlight what is and isn't working in the response system, which spends about $200 million annually to serve distinct populations of homeless families, youth, veterans, and single adults.