Washington

Is Seattle’s homeless crisis the worst in the country?

FILE - In this Oct. 30, 2017 file photo, Dave Chung, who says he has been homeless for five years on the streets of California and Washington state, eats a meal before bedding down in a bus shelter in view of the Space Needle in Seattle.
FILE - In this Oct. 30, 2017 file photo, Dave Chung, who says he has been homeless for five years on the streets of California and Washington state, eats a meal before bedding down in a bus shelter in view of the Space Needle in Seattle. AP

King County has the third-largest population of homeless people in the country, according to a federal report shows. But readers of The Seattle Times 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?”

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.

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, Honolulu, and the San Jose and Salinas Valley areas of California, have high per capita homeless numbers but no large cities.

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

Metro area

Homeless rate per 10,000 residents

Washington, D.C.

110

Boston

91

New York City

90

San Francisco

79

Los Angeles County

59

Seattle/King County

54

Portland/Multnomah County

52

Baltimore

43

Philadelphia

36

Nashville/Davidson County

35

Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

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 1,210 homeless people per 100,000.

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?

Metro areas

Percent of homeless sleeping outside

Los Angeles County

75%

Las Vegas/Clark County

67%

San Francisco

63%

San Diego County

61%

Seattle/King County

47%

Austin/Travis County

41%

San Antonio/Bexar County

40%

Portland/Multnomah County

40%

Phoenix/Maricopa County

37%

Houston/Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery counties

31%

Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

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.

State

Homeless rate per 10,000 residents

Hawaii

51

New York

45

California

34

Oregon

34

Washington

29

Nevada

27

Massachusetts

26

Alaska

25

Colorado

20

Vermont

20

Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

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.

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