Seattle's uptick in 'visible homelessness' fueled by COVID pandemic, report finds

A report commissioned by Seattle Councilmember Andrew Lewis points to a lack of shelter space, budget and quick action as the culprits for the Seattle’s worsening homelessness crisis.

According to the report, the COVID-19 pandemic put excessive pressure on shelters, which reduced bed supply for social distancing purposes. Permanent shelter capacity also decreased since 2019 and will not return to pre-pandemic levels until the new shelter is built, the report finds.

The pandemic also delayed the rollout of much-needed shelter and health funding.

"One thing is clear: there is a clear connection between COVID’s impact on Seattle’s shelter system and the stark increase in visible homelessness," said Lewis. "The staff analysts have pointed to what we know instinctively: future investments in shelter, outreach and homelessness housing in the next budget - which the Council is currently crafting - are the only practical way to scale emergency shelter in a way that doesn’t further exacerbate the scarcity of shelter spaces and marked uptick in visible homelessness."

In the next two years, more than 2,000 new housing units will become available for people experiencing homelessness—a 47% increase in the city’s total homelessness housing capacity.

RELATED: Seattle, state to buy 3 new buildings for homeless people

"Threatening to remove an encampment doesn’t solve the underlying problem of unsheltered homelessness. Quite the contrary: removing encampments without providing shelter and services just moves people around in a cruel, wasteful game of whack-a-mole," said Lewis. "The data suggests that when more suitable shelter spaces become available, more people move indoors."

The report also recommends a "person-centered outreach strategy" to build trust with people facing homelessness.

Finally, Lewis commented there is cause for optimism; long-delayed housing assets will become operational within the next few months. This includes $8.4 million for shelter and outreach approved in June 2021, $9 million for a non-congregate shelter approved in March 2021, and $5.5 million in hotel sheltering.

There is the possibility even these assets will be delayed, in which case Lewis suggests the council prepare short-term solutions to address the homelessness crisis.

"While we should hope for the best, the Council must also craft a homelessness budget that plans for the worst," said Lewis.

The City Council is currently working on the 2022 City budget.

RELATED: Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan presents her final budget proposal to city council

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