Homeless advocates are unifying around a series of talking points in an attempt to shift the conversation around homelessness in Seattle.
A “Messaging and Tools” document informed by a poll of Seattle and King County residents conducted in April that showed that many locals have inaccurate perceptions about who is homeless in the region and why, but that many want to embrace compassionate solutions.
The goal was to use data to craft talking points that could impact public opinion around homelessness, a government-declared crisis that has been a large part of the public conversation in Seattle for the better part of a decade.
The poll attempted to decipher how average Seattleites think about homelessness outside of the thought bubbles populated by advocates on one hand and those who believe that Seattle’s response has been too soft on the other, and where those perceptions deviated from reality, said Erik Houser, director of communications and public affairs with the Campion Foundation.
“I think that a lot of people rely on their instincts or what they feel like is going on with homelessness,” Houser said. “What we wanted was what the data really say.”
And, according to the data, a lot of people in King County have very skewed ideas on homelessness and at the same time want substantive solutions to alleviate the crisis.
The survey polled 803 people in King County, roughly half of them from Seattle. It was heavily skewed toward homeowners with 78 percent of people polled in the county reporting that they lived in a home that they owned.
The results found that King County residents in general think that more people experiencing homelessness have mental health problems, are addicted to substances or weren’t “from here” than other data sources suggest.
They also think that seeing fewer tents out on the streets would signal an improvement in the fight against homelessness, but list encampment sweeps as the method they would be least likely to support with their own dollars.
“We’re encouraged that people support solutions in a compassionate way,” Houser said.
Messaging is crucial, Houser said, because people say they want to support solutions to homelessness but get caught up in the intractability of the problem and the jargon that couches discussions around homelessness.
“Permanent supportive housing and diversion, for the average person that’s not the kind of language that they’re used to,” Houser said.
The research was funded by a coalition of organizations that are working on homelessness issues in King County including the Campion Foundation, Ballmer Group, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Raikes Foundation. Elway Research conducted the poll, contacting 803 people in King County at the end of February.
The pollsters started out with a list of questions from the funders with the idea that they could use the information to craft solutions, said H. Stuart Elway, president of Elway Research.
“People are supportive of upstream solutions, mental health programs, drug programs, diversion programs,” Elway said. “All of those got support, but when we asked them, ‘What would show you progress is being made?’, it goes back to visibility.”
One of the most striking takeaways from the poll was that people don’t just want homelessness to go away, they’re willing to pay for solutions.
When told that another city, namely Boston, spent between two and three times as much as Seattle on homeless services and had seen results, 54 percent of county voters polled said that we were not spending enough on homelessness. That share went up to 62 percent of those polled in Seattle alone.
“What it underlines is that people in Seattle and King County are compassionate and they do support preventing and ending homelessness,” Houser said. “I think what this polling shows is that people are committed to finding a solution through a coalition of government, business and nonprofits.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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