The cities making a dent in homelessness — and what Seattle can learn from them

Tents line a street in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood, home to a burgeoning tech scene. (GeekWire Photo / John Cook)

Columbus, Ohio and Seattle, Wash. have more in common than you might think. They’re similar in population size: about 800,000 people live in Columbus proper while about 700,000 live in Seattle. Both cities have shortages of the affordable housing needed to serve low-income residents and both Seattle and Columbus had relatively low unemployment rates of about 3 percent as of March.

#SeaHomeless is a day of cross-media collaboration to spotlight one of Seattle’s more difficult challenges. See all of the coverage from news outlets in the region here.

But there is a dramatic difference between the number of homeless people reported in each city’s most recent point-in-time census — a survey in which volunteers in the broader metropolitan region count the total number of people experiencing homelessness on one night.

On one night in Seattle in 2018, 12,112 individuals were experiencing homelessness, with 52 percent living unsheltered. In the Columbus region’s 2017 count, there were 1,691 people experiencing homelessness with 20 percent living unsheltered.

That’s a stark contrast but it is important to note that we aren’t comparing apples to apples when we look at the two cities. The population of Columbus’s broader metropolitan region is about 2 million, significantly lower than Seattle’s metropolitan population of 3.7 million. Seattle is also dealing with a historic tech boom, geographic limitations, and unique zoning restrictions, all of which contribute to skyrocketing rents and the dubious accolade of the nation’s hottest housing market.

The median home value in Columbus is $145,100 and median rent is $1,295, according to Zillow data. That’s far lower than Seattle’s median home value of $764,000 and rent of $2,695.

Unlike Seattle and Washington, Columbus and Ohio also both have an income tax which creates more opportunity to generate revenue. But Columbus only spends about $31 million annually on its response to homelessness, with $13 million coming from the federal government. In 2017, Seattle spent $68 million in homelessness programs. In 2018, Seattle expects to spend about $78 million to address the crisis.

Despite these differences, there are still lessons to be learned from Columbus, a city that has spent the past 30 years developing a coordinated, data-driven system to help people who find themselves without a home.

We studied the approach in Columbus and other cities to answer a question asked by Heather Redman, a GeekWire reader and the co-founder of Seattle venture capital firm Flying Fish Partners. Redman submitted her question as part of a project in which various Seattle media outlets are asking readers to share their curiosities about homelessness. It’s part of the broader #SeaHomeless media day Thursday, an event to raise awareness about one of the city’s most confounding challenges. Scroll down to ask Seattle reporters your own question about homelessness.

Redman — who also serves as board chair of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce—  wanted to know, “what are other cities doing that works and why aren’t we as effective?

“My suspicion is that if we assumed that nothing that exists in our system now is a given, adopted the best practices from everywhere else, and implemented all of them at once, we’d find that the problem is not nearly as hard or as complicated as we now believe,” Redman said.

Like many in the tech industry, Redman is curious why Seattle, with all its creativity and wealth has struggled to find solutions to the crisis. Tent cities sit at the base of skyscrapers where entrepreneurs and technologists are devising the next world-changing ideas. We wanted to find out what a city known for its innovation and pioneering ways can learn from the best practices of others.

Here’s what we learned: Regions with a strong governing body overseeing the response to homelessness tend to be more successful reducing it. Cities that have made the most headway in reducing homelessness did so using a Housing First approach. That model prioritizes getting people into homes without barriers, under the assumption that once their housing is secure they can begin to deal the factors that caused them to become homeless, such as job loss, mental health issues, or addiction. But despite some remarkable success stories, Housing First also has its drawbacks and limitations.

What works?

Columbus was one of the first cities to adopt a Housing First model. In 1986, the city took the unusual step of creating a Community Shelter Board, an organization that controls the city’s entire homeless response budget and coordinates all of the service providers in the region.

“Back in 2000, we started building permanent supportive housing,” said Michelle Heritage, executive director of the Community Shelter Board. “We had a Housing First strategy 20 years ago, and our shelters are ultra low-barrier with no eligibility requirements of any kind and our permanent supportive housing is also ultra low-barrier.”

Reducing barriers, like requirements for sobriety or income, has also proven to be effective when helping unsheltered individuals.

The Community Shelter Board manages all leases and vacancies in Columbus’s permanent supportive housing system. When a unit becomes available, the board works to identify the person in its database with the highest vulnerability score and longest period of homelessness. The shelter board reaches out to all the homeless service providers under its purview who then work with teams on the street to find that person and place him or her in housing.

Michelle Heritage, executive director of the Columbus’s Community Shelter Board. (CSB Photo)

“That allows us to chew down on our chronically homeless numbers,” Heritage said.

According to Heritage, Columbus has a 70 percent rate of successful housing outcomes, which means most homeless people end up with leases for close to market rate housing.

Fully embracing Housing First also helped Salt Lake City and Utah to dramatically reduce chronic homelessness, a success story that made national headlines in 2015.

Utah reduced its population of chronically homeless individuals from 2,000 in 2005 to fewer than 200 in 2015, a 91 percent drop. Lloyd Pendleton architected Utah’s Housing First homeless response and served as director of the state’s Homeless Task Force until 2015. Like Heritage, he said deep collaboration and a strong governing body with spending oversight were key to Utah’s success.

“Funding’s critically important, but you can throw millions of dollars at it and if you don’t have a coordinated effort and come in with a common vision, it’ll generally create problems. Money is not the main solution. The leadership is the main solution.

Lloyd Pendleton spearheaded Utah’s Housing First model. (Photo Courtesy of Pendleton)

Utah’s results are dramatic, but it isn’t clear whether they can be replicated in a place like Seattle. Utah has a much lower population and is unique because of its relationship with the Church of Latter Day Saints, which got behind the Housing First approach. There is also some question of whether Utah was quite as successful at reducing homelessness as the headlines let on.

But Pendleton remains confident in the Housing First model and believes Utah’s success can be replicated in other cities with strong leadership.

“My guess is if you had a really key leader there for King County, then the Amazons and the Starbucks, they’d have trust in the structure and the leadership, they’d be willing to put money in,” Pendleton said.

It’s also important to remember that Utah’s success was with the chronically homeless, a relatively small subset of the overall number of people living unsheltered. The federal government defines “chronic homelessness” as a state in which people have been continuously homeless for a year or more or experienced homelessness at least four times in the past three years due to a debilitating condition. That condition could be a physical or mental illness, addiction, or other issues that makes it difficult to sustain permanent housing. Utah’s overall homeless population has been growing in recent years.

Cities in Europe also tend to be much more successful housing their most vulnerable populations. Finland, in particular, has seen success using the Housing First model, making investments in affordable housing since 2008 and converting many shelters into supportive housing units. It is the only country in Europe where the homeless population has been decreasing in recent years, according to The Guardian. But comparisons between U.S. and European cities only go so far because of starkly different attitudes toward taxation and government-sponsored housing.

How does Seattle’s approach compare?

Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. (Photo via

Much of Seattle’s response to homelessness is also modeled on the Housing First approach, but the city does not have enough affordable units to make it a reality in many cases. Last year, Seattle exited 5,000 people from homelessness and into housing according to Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. But she says those numbers are obscured in the public eye because the overall homeless population continues to grow.

“We are pushing people out into the streets at higher rates than we can serve them,” she said. “When people are critical of what Seattle is doing, part of the reason that we continue to see people living on the streets in tents or living in parks is because effectively more people have been pushed out of their homes and been pushed into homelessness than we are able to house when we don’t have the housing stock.”

(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Creating more affordable housing was the goal of Seattle’s short-lived employee-hours tax, which Mosqueda championed. It would have levied a per-employee tax on the city’s top-grossing businesses. The City Council unanimously approved the so-called “head tax” and then repealed it less than a month later when faced with an aggressive campaign from individuals, business owners, and many in the tech industry. Amazon came to symbolize the opposition effort by threatening to slow its growth in the city if the tax went forward.

A key point of contention in that debate was whether Seattle needs more money to address homelessness. Seattle’s budget of $78 million in 2018 is low compared to other big West Coast cities. Last year, San Francisco spent a record $241 million on homelessness, though the crisis appears to be plateauing. Los Angeles is spending a whopping $1.2 billion and San Diego spent $150 million between 2015 and 2016.

A report by consultants at McKinsey & Company released earlier this year conservatively estimated that the Seattle region needs a budget of $360 million to $410 million to house its homeless population.

But even with that funding, experts agree that strong, coordinated leadership in the homeless response is essential. That has proven to be challenging for Seattle.

What barriers does Seattle face?

A 2018 audit found Seattle’s homeless response to be flawed because of a lack of coordination between cities, the county, housing authorities, and service providers. All Home, the agency created to oversee the Seattle region’s homeless response, “lacks the authority to unify local funders into an efficient and nimble crisis response system,” according to the report.

Last year, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine formed One Table, a workgroup bringing stakeholders together to develop a regional response to homelessness. The initiative stalled during the messy months in which Seattle was debating the employee-hours task. But in late June, One Table released a new plan that includes additional shelter spaces in Seattle and a $100 million bond from the county to build housing affordable housing units.

The King County audit also found flaws with Seattle’s rapid rehousing (a.k.a. Housing First) strategy, which places homeless people in privately leased apartments, covering move-in costs and temporarily subsidizing rent. When that rent assistance ends, the individual is on still on the hook for the high cost of renting a Seattle apartment.

Pollyann Buffer is living in transitional housing in Seattle. (Photo Courtesy of Pollyann Buffer)

That’s the uncertain future Pollyann Buffer faces. She was living in Pierce County, Wash., caring for her daughter and her sister’s, and working a union job at Dairy Gold. After a decade with the company, she was let go. She quickly found another gig at a natural pet food company but her income halved. She got behind on her rent and moved her family into a motel. Buffer tried to access services but they were limited in Pierce County.

“They told me before I became homeless, what I would have to do is quit my job, get on welfare, and then they could help me,” she said.

Buffer went to Seattle where she could access lower-barrier services. She and her family were placed in a tiny home village where they lived for seven months. Eventually, the Low Income Housing Institute placed Buffer and her family in an apartment with up to two years of rent assistance.

“I’m very grateful for this opportunity but I’m stuck in limbo because I know once I leave, I can afford it for a little while but what’s going to happen after that? It’s just scary,” Buffer said.

She agrees that Housing First is helpful for people like her but said it doesn’t necessarily address the long-term issue of affordable housing in Seattle.

“Everybody’s moving here because of these high paying tech jobs but it’s pushing everybody else out,” she said. “Our cost of living is too high. We can’t afford to eat … everybody’s in survival mode.”

Pete Stewart, a data entry coordinator at the Angeline’s Day Center shelter in Seattle, is also concerned about the city’s Housing First model. Last year, Seattle started rebidding contracts with homeless service providers to set new outcomes-based performance metrics.

Stewart says that half of the shelter beds in his organization were defunded in the city’s efforts to fund shelters with more case management and paths to permanent housing.

“There are so many different needs that clients have and for all of those needs there are different solutions needed,” he said. “While Housing First is very effective for some clients and very ineffective for some clients. A lot of people looking at these studies saying, ‘this is what works and this is what doesn’t work,’ they’re looking for this one magic bullet. They’re looking for this one process that will work great for everybody and it just doesn’t exist.”

What do you think about how cities are tackling this challenge? Tell us your thoughts in the comments and share your questions about homelessness in Seattle below:

Big thanks to our partners — The Evergrey, Crosscut,, Real Change, Patch, ParentMap, and KUOW for working with us on this project; to Crosscut for coordinating #SeaHomeless Day on July 19; to Hearken for letting us use their tool for this collaborative local project; and to all of you for thinking and caring about your city.