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caption: Seattle police officers walk through Denny Park before sweeping unhoused people from the area on Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Seattle.
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Seattle police officers walk through Denny Park before sweeping unhoused people from the area on Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Homelessness went up in the U.S. last year, and in Washington state

An annual report to Congress shows that homelessness increased in the U.S. between 2019 and 2020. It's the fourth consecutive year it's gone up nationwide.

On a single night last January, more than 580,000 people were experiencing homelessness across the country. That's about the population of Wyoming.

Homelessness is on the rise in Washington state as well. KUOW’s Kate Walters gave Kim Malcolm this update.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Kim Malcolm: Let's start with the statewide picture. How did Washington state compare to the rest of the country in 2020?

Kate Walters: We saw some significant increases here in Washington state. We were actually the third largest estimated increase in homelessness in the nation, with nearly 23,000 people counted here on a single night in January. That means that the growth here outpaced the growth nationally.

It does seem like this is a situation where our eyes are not deceiving us. There are more tents and other structures on our streets. This reflects reality.

Walters: We definitely saw the number go up here locally in 2020. The reality is, though, the numbers that we're seeing in this report are from early 2020, from the count that happened in January of last year. What we're seeing right now hasn't even been quantified yet.

That said, what I'm hearing from the people I’m talking to is that the numbers seem to be rising, yes. What you're seeing lines up with the idea that more people are experiencing homelessness in this area.

What do we know about why more people are becoming homeless here?

Walters: I asked a state official about that. He basically said they’d been so preoccupied with the pandemic that they just haven't had the chance to do the kind of deep-dive that they normally would on stuff like this.

They just haven't had a chance to call a county and say "It looks like there were more people living on the streets there in 2020. What's going on?" What he did say, though, is that one piece of this is the fact that it's getting harder and harder for people on fixed incomes — think disability, Social Security, retirement — to afford housing and keep pace with rental prices. That's a contributing factor for sure.

And rising rents is something that people here in King County and the Seattle area are very familiar with. How do things look here in 2020?

Walters: The report shows that the King County area has the third-largest homeless population among the major cities in the U.S. That's behind only New York and L.A.

Is that an increase from where we were before?

Walters: I can understand why it would sound alarming. It's actually nothing new. This area has ranked third in the U.S. for multiple years now, at least since 2015.

I do want to give you a sense of the scope. In 2020, on a single night in the King County area, we counted roughly 11,700 people as homeless. On a single night in New York, that number was nearly 78,000, and in L.A. was more than 63,000. We're third in the country in major U.S. cities, but we're also sort of magnitudes of difference when it comes to those two cities above us.

You've covered homelessness extensively in your career, and you've been out on one of these one-night counts before. When you went through this report, what were some of the trends that were standing out for you?

Walters: One thing that really stood out for me is that we're starting to see this kind of stagnation or even an uptick, both on a national level and a local level, in areas where we'd previously been seeing consistent progress. One example of this is family homelessness. That's something that's been declining for years, but this year, nationally, we saw a slight increase in the number of people in families with kids who are homeless in the country.

Here in Washington, that increase was actually one of the largest in the nation, second only to California. We're looking there at a population of about 6,700 people in over 2,000 families.

I talked to Derrick Belgarde, the Deputy Director of the Chief Seattle Club. He basically said seeing those rises don't really surprise him. It actually matches up with what he's hearing: “I have spoken with other outreach teams that say they are seeing an increase in families now in tents and encampments, whereas before you'd primarily see them in parking lots and cars and vehicles. So, it is heartbreaking.”

As we talk about these numbers, it's always good to have a larger context. Just how reliable are these figures?

Walters: This data is really just a snapshot. It comes from doing these single night counts of people experiencing homelessness in an area. It's a useful data point, but it is widely recognized as an undercount. The scope of this issue is much bigger than we're seeing here.

And these numbers encompass before the pandemic. They don't capture what has happened between 2020 and 2021. What are you hearing about the impact the pandemic might have had on homelessness in our state?

Walters: There's really no good data on that yet. We don't know for sure, but anecdotally what I'm hearing from officials and from people in the service industry is that they are definitely expecting that homelessness is going to rise as a result of the pandemic.

Ted Kelleher runs the Housing Assistance Unit at the State Department of Commerce. He says the pandemic has put so many more people in unstable situations, meaning there are so many more people at risk of becoming homeless: “People are very resourceful, but when you've got that many more people at risk, even with lots of assistance, it's going to be difficult to not have an increase in homelessness.”

This is even with the moratorium on evictions that now has been extended until later this year.

Walters: Absolutely. Which obviously has been very helpful for a lot of people, but then you've got renters who are really behind on rent. What I've heard from some service providers is that there's this fear that when the moratorium lifts there might be this wave of evictions that is going to leave people with nowhere to go or in a really unstable situation, and that could mean that they become homeless.

Washington state and local jurisdictions are expected to receive more than $500 million dollars in new federal money to help renters and support those living homeless, all stemming from the American Rescue Plan signed earlier this month.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.