In his 1965 chart-topping hit, “King of the Road,” country singer Roger Miller described a train-hopping rambler who knew about “every handout in every town.”
Miller’s protagonist rode the rails, looking for unlocked doors and “rooms to let for 50 cents.”
Decades later, in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Honolulu, the song’s narrative keeps sounding like a broken record — rootless, nomadic homeless people wander the nation in search of free food and housing.
Liberal Seattle, long perceived as a veritable utopia of government-funded freebies, like shelter and meal programs, is sometimes mocked as “Freeattle.”
This reputation isn’t lost on local leaders. The Seattle City Council in late 2012 discussed creating a program to manage homeless people who come from out of the area.
It’s not a new idea. Cities around the nation have tried to limit use of their shelters and services to those who can prove residency in the city. The Hawaii State Legislature even created a program to buy out-of-towners one-way plane tickets back to the mainland.
Now there’s evidence that “Freeattle” is a myth. After reviewing data they’d collected, Seattle’s Human Services Department (HSD) found that most people who are homeless in Seattle are from the Puget Sound region. Other studies show that people without permanent housing come to Seattle — and all major cities — at the same rate as the rest of the population.
The idea that homeless nomads fly south for the winter isn’t rooted in fact, either. Academic studies indicate that homeless people don’t migrate toward warmer weather or better services any more than anyone of any other economic class.
“People come for the same opportunities that everybody else comes,” said Afsaneh Rahimian, who researched migration patterns of homeless people for the Los Angeles Homelessness Project.
Who pays for what?
As the urban hub of the Puget Sound, Seattle has many shelters, but funding and support for them comes from a variety of sources throughout the region as well as from the federal government.
“We are definitely a resource rich community, but we are not the only funder in the region,” said HSD Interim Director Catherine Lester.
City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen is nonetheless worried that Seattle is shouldering a heavier burden than the rest of the region. Seattle has 1,600 of the 1,700 shelter beds in King County, he said.
“I don’t think that it is sustainable for the city to be the safety net for the county,” Rasmussen said.
HSD’s numbers indicate that Seattle shelters are housing mostly Seattle residents. Seventy percent of single adults in Seattle shelters are from the city.
About half of families with children in Seattle shelters are local, and 21 percent are from the rest of King County.
Those figures echo what Rahimian found when she studied homeless single adults in Los Angeles in the 1990s. At the time, LA city officials worried that the warm weather was attracting homeless people to the area.
That wasn’t true, Rahimian found.
“The majority of homeless people were long-term residents who had been living there for many years,” Rahimian said.
The specter of “out-of-town” homeless people comes up whenever a city or organization tries to build more housing, Rahimian said. People wrongly assume that homeless people have the desire and resources to hop on a bus or train for warmer weather and services.
This “if you build it, they will come” argument is used to try to stop the creation of new services and shut down existing programs, Rahimian said.
So, where does Seattle stand? Rasmussen stopped short of saying Seattle should cut services or prevent new services from coming, but he argued that Seattle has its limits, and he’d like to figure out where that line should be drawn.
“Should we be all of the housing and shelter needs that we see when we’re already providing shelter beds?” Rasmussen said to Real Change. “Or should we expect our neighbors to help, too?”
Cost of housing is a factor
Neighbors are helping. Seattle has many more shelter beds than the rest of the county, said Sola Plumacher of HSD, but the rest of the county has more housing programs.
“It goes right back to the cost of housing,” Plumacher said, explaining that it’s too expensive to build transitional housing programs in Seattle.
Lester, of HSD, said groups outside of Seattle have also stepped up to help. On the Eastside, Congregations for the Homeless recently increased its capacity to 40 year-round beds and 50 winter beds, with a plan to transition the winter beds to year-round. The Valley Renewal Center opened up 40 winter shelter beds in North Bend.
Lester also pointed out that agencies outside of Seattle help pay for Seattle’s shelters. The Urban Rest Stop, for example, receives funding from the city and from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Rasmussen maintains that other cities could do more, and on this at least, housing advocates agree.
Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, called out Bellevue and Medina as cities that could afford to help more. “I think it’s outrageous that we have these very wealthy suburbs. They have magnificent city halls, and they’re spending a lot of public dollars, and affordable housing and homelessness [are] not a priority,” she said.