After 10-Year Plan, Why Does Seattle Have More Homeless Than Ever?

Jonathan Murrell says he hasn't had housing in years, after being hurt in a car accident.
Credit: John Ryan/KUOW

Ten years ago this month, King County made a bold promise: to end homelessness in 10 years. The ranks of the homeless have declined in Washington state and nationally during that time. But in the Seattle area, the number of people sleeping on the streets and in shelters has only gone up.

According to the latest count in January, at least 3,772 people spend their nights outside in King County. An even greater number have some temporary roof over their heads, in homeless shelters or transitional housing.

Homelessness is growing much faster in King County than the county’s overall population.

You can find evidence of the rising tide of homelessness in lots of places. One of them is SoDo. On weekdays, commuters park along the curbs of this mostly industrial area south of downtown Seattle. And 24/7, so do the tents, recreational vehicles, and cardboard structures of the homeless.

Angi Davis, head of the SODO Business Improvement Association, took me on a tour of the neighborhood.

“There’s somebody living underneath that box truck right there in the back – a sleeping bag and a bunch of stuff pushed underneath, so he got a little bit of shelter from the weather,” she said. We drive by one stretch of sidewalk where a tent and a cardboard home, both covered in blue tarps, squat between a razor-wire fence and a Mercedes Benz. Down the block, more cardboard homes next to a Cadillac Escalade.

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We're crowdfunding to fill the environmental reporting gap in Olympia

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InvestigateWest is partnering with the crowdfunding-for-journalism site Beacon Reader to announce Olympia Environmental News — a brand new series on the most critical environmental issues facing the Washington Legislature.

Unlike Congress, our state legislature is debating environmental policies that may actually become law. Carbon cap and trade. Toxics. Puget Sound. Water rights. Oil trains. Initiative 937. But there are fewer reporters than ever covering these issues in Olympia. And without reporters, how will voters know what lawmakers are doing?

That’s why InvestigateWest joined with veteran environmental journalist Chris Dunagan. Each week or so, Chris will have a new story that you can read right here on our site and on Beacon Reader.

Help fund Olympia Environmental News!

We’ll have some great partners on the series, too. Chris’s longtime home, The Kitsap Sun, is one, and we'll be adding more.

For Olympia Environmental News, InvestigateWest needs to raise $2,500 in just 15 days to help cover the costs of reporting and keep Chris on the job. It's a big goal and we need your help.

Head over to our Olympia Environmental News page to back the project, and please tell your friends, share on Facebook, tweet it around and help us get the word out. We're counting on you!

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What Homelessness Looks Like Here in Four Charts

In 2002, when the Bush administration started pushing cities to adopt 10-year plans to reduce homelessness, Seattle/King County was already on board.

The feds suggested targeting chronic homelessness – typically the most visibly homeless people. But Seattle was ambitious and promised to end all homelessness by 2015.  

It’s been 10 years since the Seattle plan was launched, and the number of homeless people here has surged. This isn’t a national trend – across the county, homelessness has dropped by nearly a quarter.

The numbers aren’t relenting, either. A count of the homeless in January revealed that the number of people living outside rose 22 percent over last year in the city of Seattle. 

Where Do Seattle's Unsheltered Homeless Spend The Night?

CREDIT KUOW GRAPHIC/KARA MCDERMOTT

Competing Plans

Cities had an incentive to draft 10-year plans: government money.

Here’s how it works: Communities compete with each other for federal dollars to fight homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, let them know that those with 10-year plans would have a leg up.

How Do We Compare Nationally?

CREDIT KUOW GRAPHIC/KARA MCDERMOTT, PHOTO/JOHN RYAN

Even With Plans In Place, Homelessness Grows

How do you wrap your mind around 18,839 homeless people in Washington state? 

Washington’s homeless rate has actually been going down since 2006. But King County’s rate has been going up, and it’s outpacing the general population growth.

Sidebar: Fundamental, or on the chopping block?

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Our state's Public Records Act, long a point of pride for Washingtonians, opens with a flourish: "The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them."

This month in SIDEBAR, an exclusive monthly dispatch from inside our newsroom just for InvestigateWest members, Kim Drury calls up the folks in charge of that Act.

For decades, the Public Records Act has protected Washingtonians’ right to know and the Public Disclosure Commission has been there to ensure that the law’s provisions are met.

Now cuts threaten the Commission’s work. Three of 18 positions may be eliminated, and there is no money budgeted to keep up with new technology...

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The Data Test: Circa 1987

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In 1987, a gallon of gas cost 89 cents. Michael Jackson’s Bad album was at the top of the charts. Fox Broadcasting made its primetime TV debut. And the big moves in technology included the advent of the disposable contact lens and the first criminal conviction using DNA.

Redacted.

It was a big year in computers, too. That’s because that same year a young Bill Gates appeared, in dark-rimmed glasses and tie, to roll out Microsoft Excel in front of a crowded room and cameras. This rollout is now so ancient by technology standards that the History Channel carries the relic in its Invention of the PC series. And what makes this bit of trivia relevant to Redacted this month is that 1987 was also the year of the Kenney letter.

Never heard of it? Me neither.

Not until a few weeks ago, anyway, when, in a dustup over access to data at Oregon Housing and Community Services, I realized that this 28-year-old letter underpins our access to open data in Oregon.

Like a lot in Oregon Public Records Law, it’s a bit of a rabbit hole. But the gist is this: Oregon law guarantees access to machine readable or electronic data, if available, under ORS 192.440(3)[1]. That means if you’ve got something in a database, and someone asks for it that way, or in the raw, you have to give it over.

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Fish sticks, exports concede – halibut fishing to continue in Bering Sea

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When the halibut fishing season is closed, Wade Bassi is still busy with his hook-and-line fishing boat, Polaris, at Fisherman's Terminal in Seattle. Other such fishing boats and trawlers as well are visible in the background. December 9, 2014
Photo by Peter Haley / The News Tribune

Halibut fishing will forge ahead in the Bering Sea this year, despite warnings of a closure that could have choked off much of the year-round supply of the fish to consumers and restaurants and put hundreds of fishermen out of work.

The Bering Sea accounts for one-sixth of the halibut caught in the United States. The catch includes most of the frozen supply that sustains restaurants, food-service companies and retail stores nationwide, such as Costco and Whole Foods.

The crisis affecting the fish stems from a clash between hook-and-line fishers, who reel in the popular halibut, and two classes of trawl boats whose nets inadvertently kill the fish.

Sixteen Bering Sea trawlers – controlled by five Washington-based companies that scoop up mostly exported sole, flounder and cod in nets – inadvertently kill halibut. To a lesser extent, the same goes for boats from America’s largest single fishery, the pollock that ends up in Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, fish sticks and fake crab for sushi.

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Member Exclusive: Reporting B.F. (Before Ferguson)

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We just published our first SIDEBAR of 2015 — an exclusive monthly dispatch from inside our newsroom just for InvestigateWest members.

Have you ever wondered how a story goes from an idea in a reporter's head to a published piece? This month, reporter Lee van der Voo gives an insider's look at how our latest investigation came to be.

Maybe a decade ago, my husband served on a felony grand jury. For 30 days in Multnomah County, he and six other people presided over person-to-person crimes, one of three sitting grand juries convened at all times.

His tales of kidnappings and busted eyeballs horrified us both. Every weekday for a month, instead of getting up and going to the office, he went to a room downtown to listen to tale after tale of life-altering violence.

His service left a lasting impression on both of us.

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Smart phones clash with 20th Century courthouse rule

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Every court is its own dominion. And the Clackamas County Circuit Court is unique, so far as I can tell, in its prickliness about technology.

Redacted.The court’s biggest recent flap involved a reporter who took a cell phone photo of a defendant on the witness stand. The phone was confiscated as unauthorized and court staff feared a crime victim was caught in the shot. But the move that has me head-scratching is a new sign in the records room. This one bans cell phone photos of documents, as well as electronic scanners or apps.

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It’s been a while since I found myself in this room full of rolling file cabinets and manila folders. But I recently noticed the sign hanging over the public reading area, pointedly banning the use of cell phone cameras or electronic scanners to copy records. I’d offer a photograph if I could have taken one, but you see my dilemma: that would be illegal.

If you haven’t been in this room before — a photograph sure would be helpful — then you might not know that it doesn’t contain anything sensitive. No grand jury notes in here. On offer instead is the standard day-to-day fare of the courts: procedural documents from divorce decrees and name changes, civil cases and arrest records, to the not-so-occasional eviction or foreclosure.

These same records will very soon be available online through eCourt. So when I learned that the Clackamas County Court doesn’t want people taking pictures or scans of them, the question I really wanted to ask was: Why?

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