Washington saw one of the biggest estimated increases in people experiencing homelessness in the country between 2019 and 2020, according to new national figures from an annual report to Congress.
Overall homelessness across the U.S. grew by more than 2% that year, according to the report's estimates, but Washington saw an overall increase of 6.2%, or 1,346 people — the third largest increase in the number of homeless people among all 50 states.
But the report also showed that Washington was far from alone in grappling with one of the most devastating and difficult kinds of homelessness to alleviate: chronic homelessness, defined as frequent or extended bouts of homelessness experienced by people with a disability. People who fall into this category often struggle with mental health or addiction issues that make them unable to stay in housing without intense treatment or other supports. Nationwide, 15% more chronically homeless people were counted that year, driven by increased numbers of people living outside.
The 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development relies on point-in-time counts and surveys conducted in January of last year across the country — widely considered an imperfect measure of homelessness. While these annual surveys almost certainly do not capture the full span of people living homeless, together they place Washington's homelessness crisis in context of the bigger epidemic of housing instability across the country.
The latest report offers a snapshot of national homelessness before the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the U.S., which to many feels like a distant reality before the homelessness system shifted to crisis response.
"The world is so different now," said Tedd Kelleher, senior managing director of housing assistance at the state Department of Commerce, who said that state officials had been so focused on rolling out pandemic initiatives that they had little time to pore over that year's data.
But some of the trends identified in the national report still resonate with people working with homelessness today.
Washington, for example, saw a 20% increase in family homelessness between 2019 and 2020, one of the biggest nationwide, while at the same time the number of people in unsheltered families — meaning those living in places not designed for human habitation — grew across the country.
"People are seeing a lot more families in encampments, in cars," said Derrick Belgarde, deputy director of Chief Seattle Club. "And there's a lack of resources for that."
Belgarde said that finding didn't come as much of a surprise given the economic pressures on low-income families.
"Everybody brags about the Northwest, Seattle, having all these big companies, from Amazon to Microsoft," Belgarde said. "But it pushes everybody out. There's no chance you can make it on minimum wage."
Seattle and King County, for the seventh year in a row, also ranked third nationally in terms of major urban areas' overall homelessness populations.
"HUD's report confirms what we already know: that homelessness remains a complex and growing challenge and is a result of many broken systems in this country," said Seattle mayoral spokesperson Kamaria Hightower.
Hightower also noted that while Seattle had increased its homeless investments, "we know that Seattle is serving more and more individuals from outside of Seattle and King County, especially individuals experiencing chronic homelessness."
"There is a great need across the region and Seattle cannot be the only city investing in affordable housing, supportive services, and shelter resources," Hightower said.
Washington state overall had one of the top increases in people experiencing chronic homelessness, reporting an additional 1,497 people who fell into that category.
Daniel Malone, executive director of nonprofit Downtown Emergency Service Center, said that much was unsurprising given the pressures of the housing market. Private market rents are incompatible with fixed incomes in many areas, Malone said, and the low-income housing system only meets a fraction of the demand.
"People who maybe in past eras maybe would have managed to extricate themselves from homelessness even though they had very low incomes aren't able to," Malone said. "And many people cross the threshold into chronic homelessness."
But in a telling finding, Washington's urban areas weren't the only parts of the state that saw high numbers of chronic homelessness. Washington's rural areas ranked as having the country's largest number of people experiencing chronic homelessness among rural communities.
Between 2019 and 2020, for example, Yakima County saw its estimated chronic homeless population double, from 47 to 97 people. Some of that could be due to a shift in methodology, explained the county's human services director, Esther Magasis, but the numbers also reflected the community's housing shortage, she said.
In 2019, Yakima County had a 1.2% rental vacancy rate, lower than Seattle's 4.4% rental vacancy rate at the time. Construction in the county has never fully recovered from the hit it took during the 2008 housing crisis, according to Magasis, and that, combined with a growing population and a small tax base with which to develop roads and infrastructure for new development, meant demand for housing outstripped supply.
"Rent is obviously more affordable than a city like Seattle, but given the median income and the types of wages that folks are able to get in the community, it is still a pretty high rent," Magasis said.
As is the case elsewhere, a tight rental market often means that vulnerable people become more difficult to house.
In a more hopeful finding, the national report cited Washington as having one of the biggest decreases — 7% — in the number of homeless unaccompanied youth.
People working in youth homelessness have long questioned those reported decreases, however. Annual surveys of homelessness do not include young people who are couch-surfing, which some say are the majority of young people experiencing homelessness.
"It's hard to say how accurate that [decrease] is," said Bridget Cannon, senior vice president for youth services at Volunteers of America Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho.
Cannon noted that Spokane's unaccompanied youth count increased in 2019, though she suspects it's due to better counting methodology.
But the big question occupying many people's minds has little to do with 2019: How has a year of pandemic impacted homelessness?
That much is hard to tell. There's no data as of yet, and increased numbers of tents observed in Seattle parks aren't a reliable indicator of whether homelessness has actually increased or just become more visible.
"Did we go from absolutely horrific one year to slightly horrific or slightly more horrific the next year?" Malone asked. "It's super hard to tell and I don't know how meaningful it is. It's definitely horrific, though."