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Housing First Profile: Seattle, WA

With Seattle’s homeless population now exceeding 12,000, this northwestern city is fighting more than ever to keep people in housing and off the street. Despite support from the corporations headquartered in Seattle (Amazon, Starbucks, Microsoft, and previously Boeing) the city hasn’t seen promising improvement in years.

H. Stuart Elway, president of local firm Elway Research, says: “Clearly, people think this is a serious problem... and [are] willing to support a number of solutions to deal with it and want to deal with the root causes, and not just the manifestations of homelessness.”

What are the root causes of homelessness?

The current debate topic surrounding Seattle’s homeless population is: Why are they homeless? There is much speculation surrounding the root cause of homelessness in Seattle, but the two most prevalent reasons being put forth are the lack of housing and drug abuse.

The average fair market rent in Seattle has increased by 12% every year since 2014, driving more people to the streets because they can’t afford to pay rent. As more people are forced to live outside, shanty towns and illegal homeless camps are becoming more frequent, crowding city streets and freeway underpasses.

For years, Seattle has been known as a city lenient on enforcing drug related crimes and consumption. Since 2018, it has been legal to carry small quantities of controlled substances like heroin, methamphetamine, and crack cocaine in Seattle’s King County. These tolerant policies are inviting to users and dealers, who do comprise a significant proportion of the homeless drug user population.

What is Seattle’s solution?

In the past, Seattle’s City Council and Mayor have been lenient on homeless camps like The Jungle in South Seattle. However, as crime has escalated in the areas surrounding these camps, the Council is looking to alternative approaches, like the Housing First model, to give people homes - and places to recover.

Seattle-based Plymouth Housing Group has announced a $75 million project to build 800 permanent housing units as part of the city’s Housing First plan. Following the examples of other cities nationwide, Seattle hopes providing housing for these people before addressing other medical, behavioral, and social needs will give them a foundation to start their recovery.

Melissa Burns, a member of the homeless population in Seattle, has claimed, “I have not met anyone else on the street who’s not in some form of addiction.” In the past, Seattle has set up “safe injection sites” to reduce overdoses and help drug users avoid drug-related health complications.

A recent documentary by KOMO News titled “Seattle is Dying” suggests that services like  Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) be implemented in the state’s correctional facilities. Other states like Rhode Island have already seen success in this program that gives former addicts easy access to drug substitutes and follows up with them regularly to track their recovery process.

As the homeless population in Seattle continues to grow, more members of the community are voicing their opinion to solve the problem they can no longer ignore. Housing First, Medication-Assisted Treatment, and other strategies will contribute to sustainable solutions.

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