Technologists are all about using data and research to drive decisions. It’s why startups spend months validating new ideas. It’s also the reason many in the Seattle tech industry cited for their opposition to the city’s short-lived head tax, which would have collected funds from the city’s top-grossing employers to spend on affordable housing to address the city’s growing homelessness crisis. Many in the business community said there wasn’t enough data on the root causes of homelessness and the most effective solutions.
That thirst for more concrete data was evident in the hundreds of questions about homelessness readers shared with Seattle media outlets over the past few weeks. GeekWire — along with KUOW, ParentMap, Seattle Patch, Real Change, SeattlePI, Crosscut, and The Evergrey — asked readers to share their curiosities about homelessness with us so that we could answer some of their questions. Each organization selected three questions and asked their readers to vote on which one they most want to see answered.
GeekWire readers selected this question from Gail Leese, a retiree living in Gig Harbor, Wash.: What percentage of homeless in the greater Seattle area were actually residents with jobs, prior to becoming homeless?
“My question about the homeless in Seattle seems very basic — yet I’ve never heard Seattle city management reflect on this dimension of the issue,” Leese said. “The solutions they propose generally involve ‘throwing money” at the problem. They need to understand the circumstances of those affected by homelessness, in order to anticipate the effectiveness of proposed solutions. Is there a significant portion of homeless who came to Seattle in order to leverage the city’s solutions? If so, that’s counter-productive.”
One of the biggest challenges in understanding homelessness is limited and imperfect data. The most reliable and comprehensive report on homelessness in the region is the annual Count Us In report from All Home King County. In late January, hundreds of volunteers canvass the Seattle metro region to count the number of people living unsheltered. This year they counted 12,112 individuals experiencing homelessness. Volunteers also conduct an in-person survey of people living without homes.
A wide majority of homeless individuals in the region were already living here when they lost their housing. Despite the common perception that many or most homeless people move to this region from other places to access services, 83 percent of respondents reported living in Seattle or King County when they became homeless.
Although the Count Us In survey does ask questions about employment, we don’t have data on the number of people who had jobs when they became homeless.
Here’s what we do know:
- 20 percent of respondents said they were employed full-time, part-time, or had seasonal or sporadic work at the time they were interviewed.
- 45 percent of respondents said they were unemployed and looking for work at the time that they were interviewed.
- 49.8 percent of respondents said they received payment for work in the previous 12 months.
- 64 percent of respondents said their current episode of homelessness had lasted more than a year.
Participants in the survey were not required to answer every question so it isn’t possible to make a direct comparison between the percentage of respondents who had been homeless for more than a year and those who had been paid for work during the past year. But given the fact that the majority of respondents had been homeless for more than a year, and about half of respondents said they’d been paid for some form of work in the previous year, we can conclude that homelessness and employment overlap for a significant portion of people.
Losing a job was also the most common reason survey respondents gave when asked what caused them to become homeless. About 25 percent said losing a job was the primary factor. Twenty-one percent said that issues tied to housing affordability were the main reasons they became homeless and 80 percent said more affordable housing and rental assistance would help end their homelessness.
The survey results suggest that more affordable housing and services that help unsheltered people secure and sustain jobs would make a meaningful dent in the homelessness crisis. Some of that work is already being done.
United Way of King County and the Millionaire Club Charity run a program called Jobs Connect that helps homeless people find work. Amazon, which was made a focus of the head tax and homelessness debate, has partnered with FareStart to help people move out of homelessness and poverty through job training.
Despite these initiatives, the numbers show that Seattle’s economic boom is lopsided, leaving many low-income workers behind.