Seattle's homeless crisis: Can other cities offer a path forward?

A deadly shooting Tuesday night at 'The Jungle,' a homeless camp in Seattle, underscores the depth of the crisis. But other cities' success may offer Seattle clues to helping its homeless population, experts say. 

Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times/AP
Crime-scene tape blocks off an area Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, in Seattle, where a fatal shooting occurred the night before at a homeless encampment.

When Seattle Mayor Ed Murray gave a speech on vagrancy and violence in the city Tuesday night, he probably had no idea how prescient his words would be. “People are dying on our streets,” he said. “We are working on a complex problem in real time.”

Moments after the televised address, a shooting took place at a local homeless camp called “The Jungle,” leaving two people dead and at least three others injured.

The incident underscores the crisis facing Seattle and other US cities where homelessness persists at emergency levels, despite an overall decline in the nationwide rate. At the same time, experts say, some communities have made substantial progress on the issue – with some housing their entire populations of homeless veterans, for example. Such successes could serve as models for places struggling with the issue.

“I think the events in Seattle speak to the need for a community-wide conversation around homelessness,” says Tom Albanese, a senior associate at Abt Associates, a global research firm that seeks solutions to social issues. “Communities should make a commitment that it’s simply not acceptable for people to live on the streets for want of a shelter bed or resources to help them get housing. That’s really a critical piece to the solution.”

A nationwide push in recent years to eradicate homelessness has led to a visible, if modest, drop in the number of people living on the streets. In January 2015, the United States had about 565,000 homeless people on a given night – a 2 percent dip from the previous year, and an 11 percent decline since 2007, according to federal data released in November. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia saw homelessness decline between 2014 and 2015, the same report found.

Among the cities that have seen the most success: New Orleans, which last year became the first large US city to eradicate homelessness among its veterans; and Phoenix and Salt Lake City, which also have managed to house all their veterans who had experienced long-term homelessness, the Monitor’s Noelle Swan reported at the time.

And in November, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) of Virginia announced that his state was the first to meet the federal definition of ending homelessness among veterans. That means the state has the ability to house every veteran. The only homeless veterans remaining have been offered housing, but chose not to take it.

Yet the number of chronically homeless people across the country also rose 4 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to the federal report. Cities like Seattle – as well as Los Angeles, and Portland, Ore., along with the state of Hawaii – have grappled with burgeoning homeless populations. In an effort to garner state and federal support, local officials have issued emergency declarations.

“Seattle is facing an emergency as a result of the growing crisis in homelessness,” Mayor Murray said in November. “The City is prepared to do more as the number of people in crisis continues to rise, but our federal and state partners must also do more. Cities cannot do this alone.”

Though Murray has tried to take steps to combat homelessness in Seattle, critics say he has not done enough.

‘Absolutely solvable’

The success of others can serve as important models for solving the problem, experts say.

“As a country, we’ve made a lot of progress in the last 10 years or so. A lot of that progress has been made by identifying effective models on how to end homelessness and targeting investments on those programs,” says Joshua Leopold, who specializes in homelessness at the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.  

Engaging specific populations – such as veterans or the chronically homeless – is one effective strategy, as New Orleans and other places show. Collaboration with other government agencies, nonprofits, and others is another, says Mr. Albanese of Abt Associates.

“Bringing together partners and making resources available” is critical, he says. “Law enforcement has to be involved, as well as health and substance-abuse professionals and homeless assistance providers. It takes a lot of investment to have ... the type of readiness and capacity to respond to the problem.”

Identifying priorities matters, too. In May, Utah announced that it had cut homelessness statewide by more than 90 percent by investing in people’s most basic needs before turning to the other factors that lead to homelessness.

“It’s a philosophical shift in how we go about it,” Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, told NBC News at the time. “You put them in housing first ... and then help them begin to deal with the issues that caused them to be homeless.”

Of course, big challenges remain – not least of which are the varying circumstances and budgets available to cities.

Then there’s the lack of affordable housing in many large metropolitan areas. In Washington State's King County, for instance, the median price of a single-family home hit $500,000 in July, up 10.3 percent from the previous year, The Seattle Times reports.

“People are being pushed out,” Albanese says. “I liken it to musical chairs: The people who are least able economically or personally to compete with housing are ending up on the street, or in homeless systems that don’t have the resources to handle the influx.”

Still, the progress other cities have made potentially show the way past such challenges.

“The problem is absolutely solvable when we invest in the practices that we know work,” Laura Zeilinger, then executive director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, told the Monitor a year ago.

For Albanese and others, that starts with raising awareness – and cultivating a sense of urgency among policymakers and the public.

“It’s raising the visibility and urgency of the situation as Mayor Murray has done,” he says. “It’s absolutely the right thing to do to make it a more urgent issue for the community.”

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