King County Shelters: What the Numbers Tell Us

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image via King County 10 Year Plan to End HomelessnessThe King County Committee to End Homelessness recently released a report that highlighted for me why getting the facts matters in making public policy decisions.

The report reiterated the importance of providing the homeless with permanent housing as quickly as possible. When discussing the issue of temporary, emergency shelters and whether there are enough beds for homeless individuals, the report’s data led to some instructive conclusions.

The county’s shelter system can provide places for 1,704 individual adults on a given night, but 91% of these beds are in Seattle. Homeless individuals should be able to find shelter close to their home communities and existing network of support. Therefore, the report found a strong need for additional beds outside of Seattle.

The data get even more interesting.  A task force studied a cohort of 2,502 individuals who accessed shelter during the first quarter of 2011 and analyzed their shelter stays during the year before and the year after this 3-month period. The report found that 26% of these individuals stayed in shelter for a lengthy 180 days or more, accounting for a total of 74% of the bed nights used. On the other end of the spectrum, 39% of the individuals used shelter for 30 days or less, accounting for just 3% of the total shelter bed nights.

This important information shows policymakers that if we can develop approaches to transition the long-term users of shelters into more permanent housing, we would free up a lot of bed nights to serve an even greater number of people who might need only short-term emergency access to shelter.

In a discussion with the Council last week, presenters talked about this dual approach that opens the front door and the back door of the shelter system. We open the front door by increasing shelter capacity all around King County. We open the back door with focused resources to place those in shelter into transitional or more permanent housing. 

Of course, this is no easy task. The longer one stays in shelter, the harder it becomes to move into housing. But the data show us that, with targeted strategies, we can maximize our existing resources and expand our assistance to a greater number of vulnerable people. When data-driven public policy joins a motivation to provide compassionate care, we do the most good for our city.