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.
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.
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.