Seattle Has the Solution to Chronic Homelessness–We Just Need to Bring It to Scale

The suggested cover is the inside of a PSH unit from DESC.
The suggested cover is the inside of a PSH unit from DESC.

Seattle–and our region broadly–is in a housing and mental health crisis. Every day, we see the impacts of poverty, mental illness, and chronic health problems on our streets, along our highways, and in our neighborhoods. Whether you are struggling to make rent yourself, or dismayed at how many of our neighbors are destitute, we can all see the status quo is unacceptable.

Recently, KOMO 4 ran a segment focusing on the most visible part of our homelessness crisis: unsheltered chronically homeless people. We should all agree that all people deserve to feel safe in their communities. Whether homeless or housed, we are all neighbors. Things need to change. And change is not happening quickly or boldly enough.

But KOMO’s framing invites more polarization, which threatens real progress. Progress depends on us coming together, not breaking apart. Our collective focus should be how to make Seattle thrive for everyone. Regardless of where each of us sits ideologically, ending chronic homelessness is in our shared interest. So the question is not how much it costs to end chronic homelessness. The question is how much does it cost not to end it? 

The Third Door Coalition formed thanks to the hard work and openness of business leaders, service providers, and researchers who wanted to move forward with concrete, data-driven approaches to end chronic homelessness in our region. The focus has been on those hardest to house–unsheltered people experiencing chronic homelessness, most often with physical or mental health challenges, and more and more living in the throes of addiction.

We already know the most cost-effective way to end chronic homelessness because many cities–including Seattle–have tried many approaches over the decades. But clearly, the solution is not to use law enforcement or the criminal justice system to solve the problem: those approaches are consistently shown to be among the most expensive and least effective. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem. 

Instead, decades of research and practice has proven the most cost-effective way to solve this shared problem: permanent supportive housing.

Did you know that it costs more–at least two to three times more–to leave those experiencing chronic homelessness on the street than it does to house them? Chronic homelessness generates massive costs from first responders, law enforcement interactions, sweeps, sanitation,economic impacts on businesses, and emergency rooms. Just leaving people on the street costs around $30,000 to $50,000 or more per person per year. By contrast, the cost for permanent supportive housing, with wrap-around services and utilizing the Housing First model, costs around $16,000-$22,000 per year. And once people enter permanent supportive housing, the data shows that they stay there. Their homelessness is solved. In fact, as reported by Crosscut, one of the people filmed by KOMO and presumed to be homeless has been living in supportive housing for over three years. It works.

In Seattle, there are approximately 1,900 permanent supportive housing units, which see a 98%+ utilization rate, and 99%+ success rate at keeping people from re-entering homelessness. These programs are working. So why are so many people with mental health challenges, physical disabilities, or substance abuse disorders living outdoors? We just haven’t built enough supportive housing units yet.

We know what works. Reducing chronic homelessness, particularly with people who have begun self-medicating, requires investment in effective interventions. We can either pay more to react to people’s homelessness, endlessly chasing them through the expensive rotating doors of the criminal justice system and emergency rooms, or we can decide that we all need to step up and invest in finally ending chronic homelessness, once and for all, through the proven intervention of supportive housing.

The City of Seattle cannot do this alone. We need to come together, calling on elected officials at the State and County to fully invest in mental healthcare and supportive housing. This isn’t a unique concept, either: Los Angeles County and City approved over $4 billion in public investment and have seen significant reductions in homelessness for the first time in decades. Many other communities throughout the country have ended chronic homelessness or made significant progress.

This solution requires our governments to work collaboratively with the community and with each other. In L.A., the City and County joined forces and removed politics from human infrastructure investment; it is working. Multnomah County and Portland have taken similar action, and they are beginning to see results. Seattle and King County have begun the important process of a regional governance to address homelessness. Homelessness is a regional crisis–a public health crisis–and we must have a regional, coordinated approach.

This solution to chronic homelessness requires each of us to stop blaming and start acting. Each of us must step up and contribute. We know what works, and together we can unite to make the investments in proven solutions, turning the tide, and putting us on track to end homelessness in our region. Our collective future depends on it.

If you’d like to help, please donate to supportive housing providers such as DESC or Plymouth Housing or get involved with The Third Door Coalition

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Michael Maddux is a former Legislative Aide/Policy Researcher for Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, and a longtime housing and homelessness advocate.

Sara Rankin (Guest Contributor)

Sara Rankin is a professor of law at Seattle University School of Law and director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The cost per year seems awfully low and only links to a flyer that is equally vague. According to Zumper, the average rent for a studio in Seattle in 2017 was $17,700 per year.


Where is the word “addiction” in this article?

Alice Clearman Fusco

It’s in there. But it doesn’t say enough about it.

“The focus has been on those hardest to house–unsheltered people experiencing chronic homelessness, most often with physical or mental health challenges, and more and more living in the throes of addiction.”

John P Barbee

I saw the KOMO report, and believe that it is not homelessness but more a drug problem. Just my take on what I saw. I have been to Seattle and seen this issue
first hand. I wonder if the writer has?

Stephen Fesler

Both writers live in Seattle and know a lot about the issues. The KOMO series is not a remotely report and does not seek to solve problems. To call it report gives good journalism a bad name.


This is one article about what’s happening in Los Angeles:
I hope they are successful – but it sounds like they are heading straight down the same path Seattle has taken.


Actually, Los Angeles has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the entire country, if not the highest. Still, using the same techniques we are highlighting in this article, Los Angeles is seeing decreases in their homeless population for the first time in years, and double-digit decreases in their chronically homeless population. PSH works.

Aen Nardone

Continued studies and committees and reports. Ten Year plan to reduce Homelessness – The Poppe Repot – Focus Strategies – All Home – One Table – Third Door Coalition – Eviction report from the Women’s Commission – Food Insecurity report – King County Opioid Task Force and the beat goes on…………..

Now we have the new Future Labs that commissioned and compiled another study and another report that supposedly will lead to a new governmental agency to address solutions. More departments and more directors. More non profits and more directors. Everyone has their own plan and everyone wants money. Politicians pit agencies against each other and each politician has their own special interests and they direct funds to causes and groups that will benefit their careers. The city will continue to pursue their plans to enact a tax or fee on businesses to raise more money to spend on projects that do not move people into stable housing.

Anyone that really believes that the city mayor and the king county executive will step aside and allow an independent entity that is not governed and controlled by the current long time players is dreaming. Too many well paying jobs would be at stake.

Douglas Trumm

If you think people working at homeless shelters are getting rich I encourage you to check out job postings to get back in touch with reality. These folks have some of the toughest, highest stress jobs around. Many earn under 40k/year. They’re heroes to do such thankless work for low pay.

If you know a viable way to house and serve 12,000 people (and counting) that isn’t expensive, we’re all ears.


This opinion piece advocates for “removing politics from human infrastructure investment” and fully embracing a regional coordinated approach — two things Seattle activist culture (including the authors) and city council have not embraced.

Do they realize this means dialing back their own fervent politics, not just telling others to silence theirs? How does Maddux reconcile his crass, condescending tweet-based advocacy with an effective regional approach?

I’d like to read this as a “tide is turning” piece, but it’s hard to reconcile the heart of the echo chamber with collaborative, apolitical, regional solutions.