The Growth of Homelessness in Seattle and King County

The Rev. David C. Bloom*

Community Conference on Homelessness: Causes and Solutions

October 10, 1998


            The decade of the 80ıs -- the decade of Reaganomics -- was heralded as a decade of unprecedented economic growth in America. Yet the reemergence of soup kitchens and emergency shelters that had not been seen since the Great Depression of the 1930ıs became a painful reminder that many Americans were being left behind.

            National estimates of the number of persons who became homeless annually in the 80ıs ranged from a few hundred thousand to as many as two million. By the end of the decade, the Bush Administration estimated that 700,000 persons were homeless on a given night. Advocates, however, believed that the true number was far higher. Many more Americans were living on the brink of homelessness.

            In 1980, there was little public awareness of what is now commonly known as homelessness. By 1990, our nation was awash in thousands of studies, task forces, media reports, homeless advocacy groups, public initiatives, and billions of public and private dollars directed to a growing system of emergency and transitional shelter. And what did all of this attention get us? A nation in denial about a deep social pathology and no reliable evidence that the existence of homelessness in America will be resolved even within our lifetimes. What has gone wrong?

            In the mid-1970ıs, you could buy a single-family house in Seattle for $30,000. Today, that same house sells for $300,000 -- an increase of 1000% in just 20 years.

            In the mid-1970ıs, you could rent a decent 2-bedroom apartment in King County for less than $200 per month. Today, two-bedroom apartments rent for $600, $700, $800, and more.

            In the early 1970ıs, persons with serious mental illness were often housed in large state mental institutions where they received shelter, food, and some semblance of care. Today, following deinstitutionalization, many mentally ill people populate our streets and our shelters.

            In the 1970ıs an alcoholic could find an occasional job and rent a room in a single room occupancy hotel. Today, there are few day labor jobs and the SRO hotels are mostly gone.

            In the 1970ıs, persons with limited skills and education could get a good-paying manufacturing job to afford a house and raise a family. Today, minimum wage jobs in the service sector are not enough to buy a house or raise a family.

            In the 1970ıs a family on public assistance could afford to rent an apartment in King County. Today, they cannot.



            The emergence of homeless mentally ill people on Seattleıs old Skid Road in the 1970ıs was one of the first indicators of what was to become the growing problem of homelessness.

            Joe Martin began his work in downtown at the First Avenue Service Center in 1977.

           When I arrived, I learned from First Avenue veterans that things had been changing in the last couple of years. There was an increasing number of mentally ill people on the streets. While that seems commonplace in 1998, it was unusual in 1977.

           While homelessness has always been a problem for those who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction, it is different today for the mentally ill. While the mentally ill have never been treated properly, at least in hospitals like Western State there was some semblance of care and protection. But with deinstitutionalization, for many, all they had was the street.

            Ken Cole also began working downtown in the 1970ıs as an outreach worker with Seattle Mental Health Institute.

           The plan was always that the Community Mental Health Centers in the neighborhoods would take up the care, but they were never adequately funded and in some cases never built, and the housing piece was left out of the equation all together.

            In the mid-1980ıs the Municipal League conducted a yearlong study of homelessness and mental illness. The committeeıs findings provided an indictment of the mental health system at the time.

            While motives of deinstitutionalization were humanitarian, the committee said the execution left much to be desired. Too few of the dollar savings that were achieved through reduced institutional care were passed on to local communities. As a result, even the combined resources of numerous local agencies and programs simply were not adequate to the needs.

            Worse, the study said the multiple community organizations did not act together in an integrated fashion. "They operate more or less independently of one another, although they may have contact with, or serve, the same client," the report concluded.

            "Little wonder," reported The Seattle Times in a December 1985 editorial, "that many patients drop through the cracks of a malfunctioning management system. Meantime, city, county, and state officials have been too slow to move on various opportunities to develop additional emergency shelter for all the homeless, including the mentally ill."

                 Today, mentally ill people remain a significant portion of Seattleıs homeless population. In spite of several reorganizations of the mental health system and excellent programs like the El Rey and ACCESS and the efforts of the Downtown Emergency Service Center to focus services upon the mentally ill, the lack of adequate treatment and housing remain the biggest obstacles to getting mentally ill people off the street.



            The culture of Skid Road was changing in the 1970ıs. Three factors changed things, according to David Newcomer, who worked for years with the Downtown Human Services Council: deinstitutionalization, the changing policies toward public drunkenness, and the loss of very low income housing that even the poorest people could afford. Alcoholics who had always habituated Skid Road could no longer just go rent a room.

           Thatıs where modern homelessness comes from. Until the 70ıs, in most places drunks were picked up and put in the drunk tank and held for awhile. There was no sense that this was treatment, but it was a social control mechanism. Furthermore, there was low-income housing. Now what weıve done is push the drunks -- who were in their apartments -- out on the street, and theyıre drinking in public again. It wasnıt that there was suddenly more alcoholics, but that they had lost the little Skid Road taverns and apartments, and they had no place else to go. We destroyed that sub-culture that basically hid them, and pushed them out into the public. There was a system to contain it, and that system fell apart. And as happened with community mental health, you took the containment system away, but the treatment system was never really built. Also, the introduction of drugs has made a big difference. You go back to the old Skid Road, and it was mostly alcohol. The effect of crack-cocaine vis-à-vis alcohol in terms of the destructiveness in a short time was dramatic.

            Ken Cole joins Newcomer in indicting the system:

           12-step programs do not help crack cocaine addicts, and we canıt get them treatment beds when they are screaming for them. We got people out there abusing crack, and theyıre getting permanent brain damage. So even if they beat the drug, they will be disabled. We donıt have treatment on demand, which could help these people. There is nobody standing up for addicts or chronic alcoholics. Just look at the streets. Effectively whatıs going on is euthanasia, except the alcoholic is going to take 30 years to die. Heıs going to take 30 years of dying in public, because weıre not going to get him what he needs."




Market Rate Housing

            Most advocates agree that the single greatest cause in the growth of homelessness in America and in Seattle and King County since the 1970ıs has been the devastating losses in housing that is affordable to low-income people.

            A recent study by the National Coalition for the Homeless [NCH Fact Sheet #1, May 1998] says more than 2.2 million low-rent units have disappeared from the private market since 1973, falling to total of 6.5 million units. During the same period, the number of low-income renters increased by 4.7 million to a total of 11.2 million. The resulting shortage of 4.7 million affordable housing units is the largest shortage on record and has created a housing crisis for poor people. This housing crisis has resulted in high rent burdens, overcrowding, and substandard housing. These phenomena, in turn, have not only forced many to become homeless; they have put a large and growing number of people at risk of becoming homeless.

            A housing trend with a particularly severe impact on homelessness has been the loss of single room occupancy (SRO) housing. In the past, SRO housing had served to house poor individuals, including those suffering from mental illness or substance abuse. However, from 1970 to the mid-1980s, an estimated one million SRO units were demolished nationwide.

            David Newcomer describes the situation in Seattle:

           In Seattle in the early 60ıs there were 24,000 SRO units in downtown. Seattle was a working manıs town. There were loggers, railroad men and seamen, and there was this huge supply of low-income hotels.

           When I worked at the First Avenue Service Center, the Seven Seas was right above us. Rooms up there were $60/month back in the 70ıs. That would be typical, lots of rooms at $60/month. If somebody doubles up, youıre at $30/month. That was the market rate housing that completely got destroyed.

           But in those days there still was low-income housing, and most poor people were not homeless. They could still manage to find enough temporary work and somebody to help them in such a way so they had a roof over their head.

            But it wasnıt just SRO housing that disappeared in Seattle. In the late 70ıs, a downtown development boom commenced that laid waste to thousands of low-cost rental units, especially in the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. John Fox, long-time director of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, recalls the dramatic changes:

           There was an explosion of growth in Seattle from 1976-80, as we came out of the Boeing bust. This included 10 million square feet of new office space, an influx of new residents with higher disposable income to take those downtown jobs and an increasing demand for housing. Rents went up significantly. Housing prices doubled in a short period. As many as 1,500 low-income rental units were demolished. 3,000 units were converted to condominium. The Cityıs displacement study in 1980 showed that one in five existing households were forced to move because of those development forces.

           During the 80ıs, most of the old SRO stock was removed to make way for office, commercial and condominium development, convention center construction, and parking lots. A portion of it was replaced because of community organizing efforts, but over time what wasnıt saved was lost. Coinciding with the loss of over 4,000 units in the 80ıs, we saw an explosion in the amount of homelessness, particularly concentrated in downtown. People who formerly could access an SRO for the night for a few bucks or $40/week no longer could find those units.

           The effects of that redevelopment and growth and change weighed heavily on the downtown housing stock and the people who lived in those units, particularly seniors, older retirees and people with alcohol and mental health disabilities, as the problem of homelessness became ever more acute. We also saw the lines go up for public housing as the waiting lists increased. More and more people were living on the margins, paying more than they could afford, living in substandard housing. As the problem began to permeate the larger community, it began to affect families. As more demolitions occurred citywide, as rents went up citywide, as housing prices went up, an increasing number of people dependent on a stock of low-income housing were affected.

            At the beginning of this third term as Mayor of Seattle in 1985, Charles Royer said that the downtown building boom that had characterized his earlier terms, would continue unabated. These would come to include the transit tunnel, the convention center, the Westlake Park project, and more high-rise office construction. Remarkably, he also predicted that Seattle would be the first American city to solve its homelessness problem.

            Shelter providers at the time said that it was the very downtown building boom that Royer celebrated that was causing the continuing loss of low-cost housing downtown and increasing the numbers of people who were homeless. We are still waiting for Royerıs prediction about solving homelessness to pan out.


The Federal role

            So where was the Federal government in all of this? What about HUD and the Housing Act of 1949 that set forth a national housing policy goal of "a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family?" While the goal of the housing act had never been achieved, there had been a bipartisan commitment to meeting that goal -- until Ronald Reagan. While it is true that some cuts in Federal housing programs had occurred under President Carter, it was not until the onset of the Reagan administration that the legitimate role of the Federal government in providing affordable housing for low-income people was challenged and effectively gutted.

            Between 1981 and 1986 the federal budget for housing programs was cut from $31 billion to $10 billion per year. During the same period federal tax expenditures in the form of homeowner mortgage interest tax deductions increased from $8.2 billion to $28.6 billion. Only 3% of these tax breaks went to lower income households.

            These changes in housing policy have not been reversed through either the Bush or Clinton Administrations. And whereas in the 50ıs, 60ıs, and 70ıs, a wealth of federal programs generated the development of millions of units of new and rehabilitated low-income housing, todayıs federal housing budget contains nothing for housing production and is limited to rental vouchers, one-year renewals on the thousands of HUD Section 8 projects whose twenty to thirty year terms are expiring and the HOPE 6 program for the redevelopment of public housing, which in the case of Holly Park at least will result in a net loss of subsidized low-income units.

            According to a recent study released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "The number of new housing subsidies the federal government funded in 1997 was one-seventh the number of new subsidies funded 20 years earlier, in 1977. If the new commitments had not been reduced so sharply, the affordable housing shortage would be less acute today." [In Search of Shelter: The Growing Shortage of Affordable Rental Housing, June 1998]

            As the problem of homelessness continued to increase during the 80ıs, it was clear that the Reagan administration wanted to distance itself from the problem. Reagan himself in one of his ineloquent, unscripted moments made the following comment in 1984 about homeless people who were sleeping on heating grates during the winter months in Washington, DC, "What we have found in this country, and maybe weıre more aware of it now, and that is the people who are sleeping on the grates, the people who are homeless you might say by choice." (The Seattle Times, 2/1/84)

            And in 1986, there was the following in the New York Times: "The director of the Office of Management and Budget said today that the homeless of America were a problem for state and local governments, not for the Federal government.

            "In testimony before the House Budget Committee, James C. Miller 3d, the budget director, added that Œthere are a number of grants we haveı to help local governments with programs for the homeless. But when he named one, the Community Development Block Grant program, he was told by a Democratic member of the committee that the Reagan Administration had proposed eliminating this grant in its budget for the fiscal year 1987, which was prepared under Mr. Millerıs supervision." (New York Times, 2/19/86)

            The erosion of federal housing programs under Reagan played an inestimable role in the growth of homelessness in America. As Robert Hayes, the outspoken counsel for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City during the 1980ıs said at the time, "Fundamentally, the lack of housing is what is shoving people into the streets." The truth of Mr. Hayes statement has not changed to this day.



            The National Coalition for the Homeless says that "two trends are largely responsible for the rise in homelessness over the past 15-20 years: a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous increase in poverty." [NCH Fact Sheet #1]

            "Since the 1970ıs," wrote The Washington Post this past summer, "virtually all our income gains have gone to the highest-earning 20 percent of our households, producing inequality greater than at any time since the 1930ıs, and greater than in any of the worldıs other rich nations (and many of its poor ones as well). Bill Gates alone is wealthier than half the American people put together."

            Must our economic boom really have such a seamy underside? Must prosperity necessarily generate poverty and its offspring, homelessness?

            Since 1970, the number of poor people in the United States has increased by 30% from over 25 million to over 36 million. Forty percent of the poor are children. One in five children are poor, almost twice the rate for any other age group.

            The National Coalition for the Homeless says, "Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. Poor people are frequently unable to pay for housing, food, child care, health care, and education. Often it is housing, which absorbs a high proportion of income that must be dropped. Being poor means being an illness, an accident, or a paycheck away from living on the streets."

            The Coalition says two factors account for increasing poverty: eroding labor market opportunities and the declining value and availability of public benefits.


Eroding Work Opportunities

            The underemployment rate increased from 8% to 10% between 1970 and 1995, while an estimated 30% of the workforce is now employed in temporary and part-time positions. These positions typically offer lower wages, fewer benefits, and less job security.

"A second indicator of diminished work opportunities is declining or stagnating wages," says the National Coalition for the Homeless. For increasing numbers of Americans, work provides no escape from poverty. The average income of the poorest fifth of families fell $210 in 1996. In 1997, the minimum wage was 15% below its average purchasing power in the 1970ıs. Declining wages, in turn, have put housing out of reach for many workers, as we see the absurd situation of 30% of Seattle area shelter clients who say they are employed.


Decline in Public Assistance

            Moving into the area of public assistance, the Coalition says, "Increases in homelessness can also be attributed to reductions in income maintenance and other federally funded programs designed to prevent absolute destitution. A 1990 study by the House Ways and Means committee estimated that 45% of the increase in poverty between 1979 and 1988 was caused by cuts in government programs. During Ronald Reaganıs first presidential term, appropriations for federal low-income programs, measured in 1991 dollars, averaged $22 billion per year less than they had under the Carter Administration." (Addiction on the Streets, NCH, Feb. 1992)

            "Until its repeal in August 1996, the largest cash assistance program for poor families with children was the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. Between 1970 and 1994, the typical state's AFDC benefits for a family of three fell 47%, after adjusting for inflation." [NCH Fact Sheet #1] Measured in constant dollars, according to a 1995 Seattle League of Women Voters study, "The median rent in Seattle increased from $223 to $425 between 1980 and 1990, while the average AFDC grant increased by only 9%."

            The "welfare reform act" repealed the AFDC program in 1996 and replaced it with (TANF). Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Current TANF benefits are below the poverty level in every state. The National Coalition for the Homeless says, "Welfare caseloads have dropped sharply since the implementation of welfare reform. However, declining welfare rolls simply mean that fewer people are receiving benefits -- not that they are employed or doing better financially. Families and individuals who are terminated from welfare may find difficulty finding jobs for which they are qualified, while those who do find work are most likely to obtain employment in low-paying jobs that offer few benefits. Thus, households left with no income because they cannot find work and households whose work pays little and offers no or few health benefits will face even greater hardship in meeting basic needs in the future."



            Families with children are currently the fastest growing group of the homeless population. Nationally, they constitute approximately 40% of people who become homeless. The National Coalition cites a Ford Foundation study that says 50% of homeless women and children are fleeing abuse. As those of you who work with abused women and children are painfully aware, this often places them in the difficult position of having to choose between staying in the abusive situation or becoming homeless.

            As family homelessness has increased, especially for single parent families, so have the barriers to assisting them. Martha Dilts, the long-time director of Seattle Emergency Housing Services says that in the late 70ıs they could help a family get on their feet in three weeks. There was affordable housing, she says, and jobs and after school care for children and even job training. But these programs were cut in the early 80ıs, and the barriers just became greater and greater. And Ken Cole fears that with welfare reform the barriers will become even more daunting.

            "On the good news side," Cole says, "is whatıs happening on the successful suit that Evergreen Legal Services brought against DSHS on behalf of homeless children. The court has ordered the legislature to come up with a plan to prove to the courts that DSHS is really going to step up and protect those children which also means taking care of families."



            While a significantly smaller number than single, the problem of homeless women can be particularly vexing. Josephine Archuleta who now works for the Archdiocesan Housing Authority, wrote the following commentary about homeless women when she was with the Church Council a few years ago,

           Women are the invisible homeless because itıs safer that way. They dress to blend in, sleep in hidden crannies, try to hide from attackers, rapists, killers, and the scorn in peopleıs eyes, as they seek shelter from the rain and the cold. Most of them want permanent homes, but safe, warm shelter will do for today.

           Homelessness among women is growing faster than in any other population. Causes are multiple and often complex -- increased divorce, poor job skills, mental illness, physical disabilities, rising unemployment, drug and alcohol addiction, eviction, prostitution, sexual, physical or emotional abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome.

           Homeless women come in all ages, all colors, all shapes and sizes. Some are schizophrenic or manic-depressive while others are as sane as anyone can be in the madness of homelessness. Some are physically challenged while others have good basic health but suffer from too much stress and inadequate food and rest. Some are unmarried while others have left behind husbands or children or been abandoned by family. Some have education, but others are illiterate or poorly educated.



            John Fox has witnessed the growth in homelessness among teens from both his places of work and residence in Seattleıs U-District.

           Here in the University community we have seen the results of the growing destructive forces within the family context. Much of this stress is based in the kind of economic changes that we have seen occurring in the US from the Reagan era onward. These changes have led to the loss of jobs, loss of housing, loss of support systems, and a loss of community. As a consequence, we have witnessed a higher incidence of abuse and other family related problems. So we have seen kids fleeing these abusive homes in greater numbers. They began to congregate in the U-District and on Broadway. By the early 90ıs, there was an enormous population, as many as 500-800 homeless youth on any given night. These were chronically homeless, not just runaways who were gone for a week-end. There has been a response from churches and service providers with teen shelters and clothing banks and drop-in facilities. But the majority has gone without the help they really need.



            We all know that people who become homeless do not fit one general description. We also know they all share certain basic needs, including affordable housing, adequate incomes, and health care, while some may need additional services such as mental health or drug or alcohol treatment in order to remain securely housed. All of these needs must be met to prevent and to end homelessness. And all of this is possible, if we have the will to do it.

            Martha Dilts says what probably all of us have said at one time or another. "This is a big rich country. This does not have to be." Indeed it does not. Homelessness as we know it today did not exist before the mid-1970ıs. But we have seen it grow dramatically. The Seattle/King County Coalition for the Homeless annual shelter survey reported a little over a thousand turn-aways from the handful of shelters in 1980. The most recent survey reported over 9,000 turn-aways from nearly 50 shelter programs. We have indeed increased our response, but the need just continues to outpace it.

            John Fox says, "Twenty years ago, we did not have this crisis that cuts across all these communities and affects so many different groups of people. We got here as the result of conscious decisions, and we can get back, in spite of all that has gone on if we choose to make the right choices."

            Ken Cole offers this hopeful word; "There is a tremendous number of people who are getting out of homelessness, if they get the right support. If they can find a niche economically that works, if they can get the help they need, they can make it. At least five times a year someone walks up to me on the street and says hello. I donıt recognize them. They donıt look the way they did when I knew them at the mental health center or at the shelter or at the senior center, but they recognize me. Theyıre not the presidents of Boeing or working for Microsoft, but theyıve found a niche. Theyıve got some stability to their lives."

            Thatıs what we have got to believe. The problem is bad, and, yes, it is getting worse. But it does not have to exist. Joe Martin says we need a revolution of the heart, a spiritual revolution that would somehow awaken us from our collective slumber to a sense of our collective responsibility for one another so that we can begin turning things around. Joe paraphrases World War II era German pastor Martin Niemoeller, when he says "When they came for the homeless, I wasnıt homeless, I wasnıt crazy, I wasnıt poor, so I didnıt speak up." Itıs time for us to speak up.



*David Bloom is the former Associate Director for Urban Ministry at the Church Council

of Greater Seattle and a long-time local housing advocate. He may be reached for

speaking engagements or consultations with non-profit groups at 206-941-8068.

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