The dearth of affordable housing is a major cause of homelessness here, where a tech boom led by Amazon has helped push home prices up by 19 percent a year. But homelessness also disproportionately impacts people of color. Twenty-seven percent of King County’s homeless population is black, yet black residents only make up 6 percent of the county’s overall population. This year, 14 percent of the people who died as a result of living outside in King County were black. These figures make Seattle’s approach to homelessness an issue of race as much as affordability. That connects an app-based “solution” to the problem of homelessness to a dark history of American self-policing, in which public order is delivered at the cost of the most vulnerable.
It has been almost 1,000 days since Seattle declared a state of emergency around homelessness, but a recent study showed that Seattle’s homelessness crisis is only getting worse. “This is the sixth time we’ve been swept,” Sean, a longtime resident of Ravenna Woods, told me. “Many of our friends have moved on to other, sometimes dangerous, places because they can’t be here.” A January count of homeless individuals in King County, home to over 2 million people, reported 12,112 residents identifying as homeless, 6,320 of whom lived unsheltered. This ranks King County’s homeless crisis third worst in the country by some measures.
August Drake-Ericson, a program manager for the Seattle Homeless Encampment Response team, shared during an encampment-removal review meeting that Find It, Fix It was the primary source of complaints regarding unauthorized encampments and requests for removal. The total number of complaints received last year was 12,500, an average of 34 a day. Between February and April of this year, 1,444 unique complaints of unauthorized encampments were submitted.
“The volume of complaints sent through the app does not necessarily impact how removals are prioritized, though,” explains Will Lemke, the director of communications for the Seattle Homelessness Response team. Instead, “the complaints sent through the app can help identify a new encampment for the city,” he says. At this time, the city is not interested in preventing people from using the app to report homeless encampments. For its part, the city says the encampment was moved onto a priority list in April after police arrested one of its residents on charges of being a felon in illegal possession of firearm ammunition.
According to the county’s homeless-services agency, King County shelter beds regularly fill to 90-percent capacity. Their one-night count conducted in January of this year shows that there is a current shelter population of 3,585. If that figure represents a 90-percent capacity, it would mean almost 400 more beds sit empty most days.