According to the latest finding from the annual One Night Count, homelessness is up 21 percent in Seattle. The survey, released in late January, reported that there are were 3,772 people facing homelessness during the count, up 649 from the count in 2014.
But are those numbers entirely accurate?
Probably not, said Michael McKee, operations and health services director at the International Community Health Clinic (ICHS).
The group’s International District-based clinic focuses on improving the livelihoods of people in the Asian Pacific Islander communities. According to McKee, many of the people using its services are part of the Seattle’s “hidden homeless” population in the city, many of whom are new immigrants, he said.
McKee describes them as “hidden” because homelessness does not only apply to those out on the streets or sleeping in cars. In fact, many people slip through the cracks in surveys such as the One Night Count. Instead, McKee used the term “housing unstable,” which encompasses everything from couchsurfing to doubled-up housing to support newly-immigrated family members.
“Refugees and immigrants have experienced significant disruption, political turmoil … and might have undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, which can lead to challenges [with securing housing],” said McKee.
Thus, struggling with mental health issues and housing instability becomes a stigma and people become less likely to seek help. It’s a matter of pride, he said, and it’s an attitude especially prevalent in Asian communities. “If you ask someone if they are homeless, 99 percent of those people will say ‘no.’”
To help combat this, ICHS works with its clients and partners with community organizations to offer mental health services, renters rights clinics, and job workshops to help empower struggling clients.
While services offer much needed support, homelessness is still on the rise. So, what other factors are contributing towards the greater problem?
Sharon Lee, executive director at the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), is blunt about the situation: There simply isn’t enough housing or shelter services available for Seattle’s homeless and city leaders aren’t doing enough to address the problem.
“The irony with service agencies and 211 [a phone hotline] is that they shut down. There’s no one on weekends or on evenings. It’s convenient for people during the day, but not after work hours,” Lee said. “Even though the City Council said they don’t want any homeless families sleeping outside, it still continues today.”
To help needy families, LIHI, which is located in the International District, seeks to connect people with permanent housing and to shelters when there aren’t other available options. Lee said the group’s clientele also includes many women and children suffering domestic abuse.
“[This year], there were so many families with children. … It was shocking how many destitute and needy families would show up to sleep in a tent in the middle of winter,” said Lee, referring to Nickelsville, a tent city in the Central District, which LIHI sponsors.
However, even when stable housing options open up, they’re not always ideal, said McKee of ICHS.
“If your family is in Burien, but the housing you’re being offered is in Ballard, there’s a disconnect there, even if [you’re coming from] an unstable housing situation. You’re taking away what’s familiar: how to go grocery shopping … how to get to work,” he said.
As a result, homelessness, particularly in Asian and immigrant communities, can feel incredibly isolating.
“People of color are being forced out of their neighborhoods … [and] there’s unaffordable rent and a high cost of housing. If you can’t even afford a microunit, how can you afford two- or three-bedroom housing?” Lee said. “If the battleground [in Seattle] is affordable housing, that’s where you need to put city resources.”