Among the most contentious debates within the broader topic of homelessness is the prevalence of “service refusal,” or when an unhoused person declines housing or other help offered to them.
Where things get complicated is why.
Proponents of more aggressive enforcement against people camping or parking in public places contend that unhoused people consistently refuse help, preferring to remain on the street “so they can do drugs.” Or perhaps because “they don’t want to work.” Pick your canard.
On the opposite side of the issue, advocates for the unhoused contend that nearly all unhoused people would eagerly accept housing if only it met their needs, which most shelters fail to do. Offer people permanent housing or even tiny homes, they say, and you’ll see close to zero people turning down a place indoors.
In the absence of hard data on service refusal, it’s hard to substantiate either argument. However, the city of Seattle does record reasons given when its outreach workers make an offer of shelter that is refused, and Real Change obtained a selection of this data for offers made between Oct. 2 and Nov. 15, 2022.
The data bears out many advocates’ arguments, especially about what kinds of shelter unhoused individuals prefer.
That said, the first myth to debunk is that the majority of chronically unhoused individuals would rather sleep on the street. Among the 375 offers of shelter made, 227 were accepted, or a little more than 60 percent. (Five of those offers were listed as accepted but “bed not available.”) The numbers suggest that people would rather be inside.
However, when you examine what types of offers were accepted or rejected, some interesting trends emerge. The city currently only offers shelter beds or tiny home village placements during its outreach and encampment removal proceedings. Among the rejected offers, a whopping 92 percent were for shelter beds. Indeed, 41 of these offers list the reason for rejection as “do not want shelter,” “do not want communal space,” or “[history] of negative experience with shelter.” According to Jamie Housen, communications director for Mayor Bruce Harrell, “do not want shelter” means did not want any of the shelter types offered by city outreach workers, including tiny homes, and is not specific to shelters.
“So when you think about a tent, they have privacy, unlike being in a congregate shelter or living in a dormitory or even living in a partition,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI).
While only six people refusing offers of shelter in this cohort specifically said they’d had bad experiences with shelter, Lee said that was a more common experience than most housed people understand.
“I think many people have had negative experiences with having stayed in an overnight shelter or stayed in a dormitory,” she argued. “Or, for that matter, they caught bed bugs or they caught some communicable disease in a common shelter or they got their stuff stolen in the shelter. So people, just based on their experience, are saying, ‘We don't want that.’”
Another nine people listed as their reason the inability to keep their pet, an inability to stay with “partner/family/friends” or a “vehicle/RV related issue.” People living in vehicles are unlikely to give them up for a short-term shelter stay, and the fact that people will not accept shelter without the ability to bring their “three Ps” (pets, partners, possessions) with them is considered a basic fact among homelessness services providers and one that city officials touted when they opened the first enhanced shelter in 2017.
So if people don’t want shelter, what do they want? Tiny homes.
Of the accepted offers, 59 of them were for tiny home placements. At about 26 percent of the total number of accepted offers, this represents a significant leap in their share from the rejected offers, where tiny homes accounted for only 11 out of the 148 rejected offers, or 7 percent. Notably, only two of the 11 rejected tiny home offers were rejected because the recipient “did not want shelter.” The rest of the rejected offers for tiny homes were all declined because of location, composing the entire segment of location-based refusals. It’s also well established in the advocacy community that asking people to move too far from the neighborhood they’re currently living in is a nonstarter, no matter what kind of living situation is on offer.
To really hammer home how much the unhoused individuals contacted by the city prefer tiny homes, the single most common reason for refusal of shelter was “wants tiny home.” About 36 percent of rejected offers listed this as the reason.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis said he’d seen even more of the data on shelter offers and estimated that as much as two-thirds of refusals were because people would prefer tiny homes. He added that hotel facilities are similarly popular with the people they’re offered to and effective in getting those people into permanent housing, per a recent study on the King County coronavirus-era hotel takeover program performed by “Homelessness is a Housing Problem” author Gregg Colburn.
The main thing that both types of transitional housing offer, he noted, echoing Lee, is privacy.
“When people have more privacy, there’s less interpersonal conflict, there’s fewer things that escalate into confrontation,” Lewis said.
Beyond that, Lee said, these types of transitional housing also offer immediate safety, simply by virtue of being more likely to be accepted. Privacy, she theorized, is what might make someone stay in a “cold, wet tent.” Give them a door that locks, and you can convince them to come inside.
According to recent numbers from Women in Black, a group that tracks the deaths of unhoused individuals, a record 11 people in King County died from exposure in December 2022.
“I think one of the goals we should have is that people should not be dying from exposure. People should not be dying from homelessness,” Lee said.
So, given that the mayor has touted his administration as a “data-driven” one, are they putting this data into practice?
“The data provided ... represents the beginning of [the Human Services Department’s] attempt to collected more detailed information related to offers of shelter/outcomes and it may be too early to draw long term conclusions of what the data represents and how it may impact policy moving forward,” Housen said in an email. However, he noted, the mayor’s proposed budget includes about $5 million for new tiny home units.
“Non-congregate shelters, such as tiny house villages, remain a key sheltering option to support those living unsheltered and provide a viable alternative to sleeping outdoors,” he wrote.
Lewis lauded Harrell for compiling the data at all, which he said the administration decided to do late in the summer of 2022, as well as for what he described as general support for tiny home projects. Complaining that former Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration wouldn’t even collect refusal data — which he suspects was to avoid implementing tiny home projects the council funded and Durkan disliked — Lewis said he’s had the opposite experience with Harrell’s administration.
“Mayor Harrell, he’s only had a year. I think that that is the direction he wants us to go in. I mean, I do think he’s interested in figuring out how we can do more tiny homes,” Lewis said.
Lewis said he’d like to see everything that’s currently funded get built before deciding on how many more were needed. The goal, he cautioned, is not to build a tiny house for every unhoused person but rather to build enough to house everyone who urgently needs one and get them moved through to permanent housing, a category that he noted has hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for it in the current budget.
“We don’t want people living in tiny houses,” he said. “We want them to live in housing and to just temporarily stay in tiny houses. Move through.”
Lee agreed, listing off more than 50 percent permanent housing placement rates at several of LIHI’s tiny home villages. But, she wants to see a lot more.
“We don’t have enough tiny homes,” she said. “We’ve had a goal of 1,000 tiny houses. So we should reach that goal and do more. It’s an innovative, proven, effective strategy, and people are doing it around the country now.”
Either way, both agreed that the demand is there. A recent point-in-time count from the King County Regional Homelessness Authority put the unhoused population at more than 13,000 for the county. Around 70 percent of unhoused individuals in a 2020 point-in-time count were in Seattle.
Shelters will always have their place in the homelessness services system, Lewis said, touting the success rate of places like the Salvation Army’s SODO facility, but, given his druthers, tiny homes and hotel stays should be available to anyone who wants them.
“Quite honestly, we should have a strategic plan to make those all of our shelter resources,” he concluded.
Read more of the Jan. 11-17, 2023 issue.