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Generous Donation Gone to Waste on Bad Homelessness Policy

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Seattle civic and business leaders have announced a $10 million collaborative effort to tackle the downtown chronic homelessness problem. “It’s the beginning of some good news,” Mayor Bruce Harrell declared when they announced the financial donation.

The effort is noble, but the congratulatory spirit is misguided, considering that previous expenditures have done nothing to reduce homelessness in Seattle.

Why would this time be anything different?

Seattle ranks third in the nation for its homelessness population, surpassed only by Los Angeles and New York City. Since 2015, homelessness in Seattle has increased 17%. Between 2019 and 2020, Washington state outpaced the nation in its increase in homelessness. All this despite millions of dollars in increased expenditures in attempts to address the growing crisis. In 2017, The Seattle Times reported that King County was pouring over $195 million into the homelessness problem (Seattle’s portion was more than $60 million).

According to King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones, who will be overseeing the spending of this donation, the problem is funding. “Our system does not have enough money,” they told KOMO News. “I’m not afraid to say it repeatedly.”

But it’s not for lack of money that Seattle’s homelessness population grows. These increases in homelessness have been caused by Seattle’s stubborn dedication to “Housing First,” a failed policy that insists on giving away taxpayer-funded housing vouchers for free, without preconditions, rather than addressing the real roots of the crisis: severe mental illness and substance use disease.

Unless Seattle is ready to honestly evaluate how its own policies have contributed to the problem, this newest $10 million will not make anything better. In fact, it could actually make the situation worse.

California is a stark example of Housing First’s failure. As a state, California formally shifted 100% of its funding to a housing first-only policy in 2016. Since then, their situation has grown significantly worse. Between 2015 and 2019, unsheltered homelessness in California increased 47.1%.

This experimental policy has not fared well on the national level either. Housing First became the federal policy in 2013, with advocates promising then that it would eradicate homelessness in 10 years (by 2023). Instead, unsheltered homelessness increased 20.5% across the country between 2014 and 2019.

Not only is Housing First ineffective, but it’s also not financially sustainable. In Los Angeles, a single unit is costing taxpayers as much as $837,000. Sadly, government construction projects for people experiencing homelessness have proven to be significantly more expensive than private construction for similar projects.

Still, Seattle clings stubbornly to Housing First, proclaiming it to be promising and effective, despite years of experience proving otherwise. Harrell announced that his administration would be “going back to the basics” which “includes efforts like our Housing First policy.”

Anyone who regularly walks the streets of downtown Seattle is all too familiar with the sight of someone shooting up in broad daylight or an individual suffering from an untreated mental illness. In a scathing article about Seattle’s handling of drug addiction, former Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran accused the city of do-nothing policies that promote addiction and ignore public safety. And he’s right.

Chronic homelessness in downtown Seattle is mostly a mental health and substance use problem, not a housing problem, and unless it is treated as such, the problem will only get worse. According to Seattle’s 2020 point-in-time count, 73% of the chronically homeless were suffering from a psychiatric or emotional condition such as depression or schizophrenia, and 64% were abusing drugs and/or alcohol. (Even these numbers are likely conservative.)

Seattle policy appears to be blind to these facts. Or worse, willfully ignorant of the situation. While the word “treatment” is always thrown around in discussions about homelessness, The Seattle Times reported that in 2017, only 7% of King County’s homelessness budget was spent on “access and supportive services.” In contrast, 50% was spent on permanent housing.

To address chronic homelessness, Seattle must orient its strategy around treatment and recovery, not around housing. When a person recovers from homelessness they more often than not are able to land and keep a job, and in turn, are able to pay for housing.

If Seattle is serious about addressing chronic homelessness, it should first honestly reflect on what has gone wrong and then work quickly to correct these missteps. Change should include focusing on real treatment-and-recovery services and abandoning Housing First as the one-and-only one-size-fits-all approach.

Hopefully, Seattle policymakers will stop following the ways of Los Angeles in doubling down on an experiment that has not worked. Ten million dollars thrown into housing-centric efforts for a population that desperately needs mental health and substance disease treatment is $10 million mistargeted.