Homelessness & Poverty
Homeless Not Helpless


According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, there are approximately 760,000 people who are homeless in the United States on any given night, 2 million have been homeless at some time during the year, and 12 million of the adult residents of the U.S. have been homeless at some point in their lives. By my records, a little over 1 out of 100 people in Seattle are homeless. The city and the homeless organizations compromise on an estimate of 5,500, and the population of Seattle is about 550,000. But in studies cited by NCH, about 3% of the total population in large cities uses homeless shelter over a period of time.

In Seattle, we have shelter and services for about half of our people who are homeless. Many people are turned away because of lack of capacity. Still more have given up trying: to get shelter, to get housing, to get medical or mental health or addiction treatment, to get into an education or job training program. Yet Seattle is doing much better than most cities in the U.S.

Estimates vary as to how many people who are homeless are women or children. Estimates of homeless people here in Seattle, from what they observe, are that 1/3 of all homeless people are women, 1/3 men, and 1/3 children or youth. Half of the women in that estimate are single; half are partnered. Some of the members among "children or youth" are single teenaged mothers. These estimates seem close to the statistics of the National Council of Mayors.

The National Council of Mayors determined that at least 20% of the adults who are homeless work. In Seattle at least 60% of the adults and youth in homeless shelters work at least part time; estimates of those who work full time vary from 20% to 40%. This variation may be due to the group being observed. In SHARE self-managed shelters, which tend to attract active and independent adults, about 50% of the participants work. In Tent City, where conditions of 24 hour access and a safe place to store your belongings make work easier, about 90% of the residents work.

Almost all of the homeless people I have talked with have some history of physical or sexual abuse in their childhood. Fifty to sixty percent of the women and children who are homeless are victims of domestic abuse. There are also homeless men, including fathers with children, who are fleeing abuse.

In spite of this history of abuse, only about 20% of homeless people have serious, chronic, incapacitating mental illness or alcohol/drug addictions that make it impossible for them to function. About 40% have some mental illness or alcohol/drug issues. Treatment for mental illness and addiction is essential to solving homelessness. But it is only part of the picture, and would not help the majority of the people who are homeless to get out of poverty.

Isn't there really enough housing for everyone?

There is no place in the United States where anyone earning minimum wage can afford a market-rate apartment. Low-income housing is defined as housing that is affordable by people earning 20% or less of the median income: in other words, 20% of the population. The number of low-income housing units in existence is far below the number of people who need them. The number of low-income and affordable housing units has actually been dropping ever since 1979.

In a booming economy, housing becomes more expensive for everyone, but income doesn't increase for 60% of the people. Many working people and professionals, people who considered themselves secure and even middle-class a few years ago, are feeling squeezed.

Why don't we use all those abandoned buildings for homeless shelter?

Sometimes this is possible, and it is done. The SHARE Bunkhouse was originally a refurbished abandoned building. But it isn't always possible.

Using an abandoned building isn't free. The process is as long and complex as opening any other kind of indoors shelter. Obtaining clear legal use of the building usually means paying somebody something, if only paying back taxes. To be a legal shelter, the building would have to be made structurally sound, cleaned, provided with heat and running water and enough toilets for the number of people staying there. It also has to be insured.

Buildings apparently empty and unused aren't always abandoned. They usually have an owner who intends eventual development or sale, and is not always willing to let homeless people use the property in the meantime.

Neighbors are the major factor in whether or not a building can be used. An abandoned building in Pioneer Square was used for awhile by a group operating self-managed emergency shelter (SHARE). When SHARE attempted to move back to the space a couple of years later, they were blocked by the Pioneer Square Council. On the other hand, the neighbors were supportive when the no-longer-operating Aloha Inn was purchased and made over into a transitional shelter.

How Do Churches Host Homeless Shelters?

If you know any organization with room to host a homeless shelter, please find out more about the process here.

How many people in the world are homeless? And other statistics on homelessness?

Many questions on homelessness are documented by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

I've given a lot of statistics here. I have more discussion on the pages What Causes Homelessness and Who Is Homeless? I also have a lot of information at Absolute Authority on Homelessness and the Homeless Column. I am writing as fast as I can. :)

Some statistics are hard to come by. A lot of homeless people do not identify themselves as homeless, even when seeking aid. Homeless women are especially invisible, because they feel most vulnerable. Homeless families are difficult to count because many parents are afraid that their children will be taken away if they are known to be homeless. For these and other reasons, services that are determined to win trust and build relationships with homeless people do not pressure for personal data and do not keep statistics that are shared with outside agencies.

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— Anitra L. Freeman
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