The number of chronically homeless people in King County is up 28 percent this year, according to the latest look at the homeless population, which was released today.
Compare that to the experience in Utah, which slashed chronic homelessness over a 10-year period. "I think Seattle could do the same thing, if that was a priority," said Joe Camacho, who lives in a shelter near the Space Needle.
Camacho was eating breakfast recently at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Ballard with Carol Duescher, who lives in her car. They're part of a group called the “Debating Society.”
And the “Debating Society" had a question for KUOW to report on: Why isn't Seattle more like Utah?
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Utah saw such a dramatic drop by 2015 that even the Daily Show covered it. "Did you hide the homeless people underground?" asked comedian Hasan Minhaj. No, said Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah's program: "We did it by giving homes to homeless people."
Now, the Utah program did not get close to helping all homeless people. Only around 15 percent were chronically homeless when the program launched back in 2005.
Utah decided to focus on such a small sub-group because chronic homeless people cost cities a lot more money, Pendleton said — around $30,000 to $50,000 a year on average for things like emergency services.
Housing that specific population – and providing the help they need – is actually cheaper, which “made sense for a conservative state like Utah," Pendleton said.
If it makes so much sense down there, why isn't Seattle more like Utah?
It turns out that back in the early 2000s, the question Pendleton and other asked themselves was the opposite: Why isn’t Utah more like Seattle?
That's because Seattle pioneered permanent housing programs for the most needy back in 1990s. That population continues to be a priority here, and 2,800 units house now chronically homeless people, according to Robin Koskey with Seattle's Office of Housing.
It includes people like Odis Holt, who lived for 16 years behind King Street Station.
Many nights, Holt feared for his life. “When you're homeless and you're living out there on the streets, you're subject to the whims of life,” Holt said.
Now he's at The Estelle, a new building in the Rainier Valley that houses chronically homeless people. "You've got nurses, you've got a doctor that comes in, you get a free meal at the end of the day, you get coffee seven days a week," Odis said.
That's the help this population needs.
But getting into a place like the Estelle is not easy. There were more than 3,500 chronically homeless people in the latest one-night count (done in January but released this week), and the actual number is likely much higher.
Given the high cost of real estate in Seattle in 2018, housing that population would be very expensive — Utah had an advantage there when it faced up to its crisis.
Seattle pays about $100,000 for each new unit, and the actual cost (including other government funding) is around three times higher, according to the Office of Housing. There's also the annual operating cost of around $17,000 per person per year.
What would it cost to house every chronically homeless person in Seattle? The city isn't prepared to even look at that price tag. Consider the recent battle over the head tax on big employers, which will raise only a fraction of what an effort to house every chronically homeless person would cost.
Another reason Seattle isn't like Utah: Chronic homelessness is just one priority here.
Kira Zylstra, interim director of All Home King County, which coordinates a regional response to homelessness explained: "There's a huge number of other people, other families, other young people we don't want to leave on the wayside, so it's making best use of the resources that we do have."
Finally, the Seattle process and the Utah process had different results.
In Utah, Lloyd Pendleton had been head of humanitarian services for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before being loaned to the state to work on homelessness.
As director of Utah's Homeless Task Force for 13 years, he brought together a broad coalition that included the Mormon church, the business community and state and local leaders.
It was so effective that some in Seattle told Pendleton they were jealous, including a leading homeless advocate, the late Bill Hobson. Pendleton said Hobson told him he “would kill to have this kind of collaboration in King County."
Compare that to Seattle, where business and government leaders are often at odds, or Olympia, where statewide consensus is an endangered species.
Utah's results are far from perfect. The focus on a single population means other groups don't get the resources they also need. And with a booming economy and a spike in housing prices, there's been an increase in homelessness there too in recent years, including a jump in chronic homelessness for families with children.
Back at St. Luke's, Carol Duescher still thinks we should give Utah's bold experiment a try.
“Focus on one thing with one group of people, and then try and see if you can accomplish this with the least amount of resources," she said.
Duescher supports that approach even though it would help only high-needs people who are chronically homeless, and wouldn't necessarily get her out of her car.
And by the way, the number of people living in their vehicles is up 46 percent from last year in the homeless count released Thursday.