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Seattle Has More Unsheltered People Than New York City

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo

Seattle has more unsheltered people than New York, a city nearly 12 times its size, according to the most recent homelessness data from each city.

In Seattle, 4,488 people are living in tents, on the streets, and in vehicles, according to numbers released this week from an annual “point-in-time” count performed in late January.

In New York City, where the most recent results are from a count in February 2017, that number was smaller: 3,892. 

Results of New York’s 2018 count have not yet been released and are expected later this year. When 2017 numbers are compared, Seattle’s unsheltered population of 3,857 still rivals New York’s.

Experts say the comparison reveals not only the severity of Seattle’s housing crisis, but also differences in the visibility of homelessness on the West Coast compared to the other parts of the U.S.

While people are often found sleeping on New York's sidewalks and in subways, Seattle-style clusters of tents and makeshift shelters are not a regular part of life. 

New York’s total homeless population, 76,501, dwarfs Seattle’s. But the vast majority of people without homes, 95 percent, were staying in shelters the night the count was performed. 

In Seattle, more than half of the homeless population is living outside. 

The disparity is largely because of New York State's unusual “right to shelter," the result of a 1979 court decision. 

It’s the reason New York City is legally required to provide shelter for everyone who needs it, a mandate that exists in few other parts of the country.

"It's just a very different environment," said Kira Zylstra, director of All Home, the organization that manages King County's annual census of the homeless population.

"It means they will find space for folks no matter where that is," she said, including "mats on the floor type shelter." 

But, Zylstra added, having more shelter doesn't mean you're moving more people into permanent homes.

"They're, like us, still struggling with the level of housing resources needed to support the entire community," she said.  

In December, an all-time high of more than 63,000 people stayed in New York City shelters each night.

Seattle's shelter capacity covers a much smaller share of its homeless population. The city operates 1,773  shelter beds, plus 259 units in so-called “tiny home villages.” Those spaces are 93 percent full every night, according to city officials. 

New York’s shelter mandate is costly. Leaders of the city’s Department of Homeless Services expect to spend more than $1.7 billion operating shelters in 2019. Spending on city shelters has risen by more than $790 million since 2015, attributed to a worsening housing crisis.

Seattle, by contrast, plans to spend $21 million this year on shelters, day centers, and hygiene services combined, a city spokeswoman said.

The State of Massachusetts has a legal right to shelter that applies only to families with children. In Washington, D.C., people who are homeless have a legal right to shelter on freezing nights. 

Even where legal mandates do not exist, cities on the East Coast and in the Midwest generally act more aggressively to provide shelter for everyone who needs it, said Barbara Poppe, a former director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

"You’ll see that the numbers of unsheltered are largely in the West Coast," said Poppe, who worked as a paid consultant for the City of Seattle on homelessness policy in 2016. "That’s because those are states and communities that have not adopted progressive policy to ensure access to shelter."

Seattle officials are taking steps to increase capacity. Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a plan this week to create 522 new beds in shelters and tiny home villages within 90 days. That plan awaits a vote by the City Council. 

The "head tax" on businesses passed by the City Council last month would primarily fund the construction of housing, but could create around 250 shelter beds plus two sanctioned encampments with space for 54 people, according to a tentative spending plan.

Seattle's latest data also highlight the extent to which the Puget Sound region's homelessness crisis is  concentrated in its largest city. Seattle's unsheltered population exceeds that of Pierce, Snohomish, and Thurston counties, plus the rest of King County, combined. 

Zylstra, who has worked in Seattle's homelessness service sector for 17 years, said she cannot recall a time a "right to shelter" policy was seriously debated in the city. 

"We have not gone that route as a community," she said. "There are a lot of challenges with making that possible and making sure that it does create the kind of safe, stable places that you need and still creates the pathways housing that we know that we desperately need." 

Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.
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