Chronic Homelessness and Public Safety

Chronic Homelessness Remains a Crisis for Downtown and the Region

Our ability to sustain recovery is critically linked to the urgent need to address homelessness downtown. The current realities — and the impacts on small businesses, workers, residents and individuals in need — are the principle threat to downtown’s renewal.

Seattle and King County have long struggled with supporting the needs of a growing unhoused population. In 2015, the city and county declared a state of emergency, calling for all city residents to have access to shelter. In 2019, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan signed an interlocal agreement creating a King County Regional Homelessness Authority to oversee a coordinated and unified regional response to the crisis. Despite those and other efforts undertaken by local government and service providers, the number of unhoused people in our community has continued to grow. 

The crisis has only been made worse by the pandemic. As shelters implemented increased spacing requirements and COVID-19 outbreaks spread fear of accepting referrals, the number of people living outside throughout downtown’s neighborhoods grew significantly. At one point, there was a 912% increase in tents outside during the day — from an average of 16 per day before the pandemic to a high of 146 in January 2021. While the average number of tents downtown has decreased somewhat since then, the figure remains alarmingly high and well above the pre-pandemic average.

Average Daytime Tent Counts
2021 Compared to 2019
Due to staffing limitations, tent counts were not conducted in February 2021.

Over the past year and a half, some investment has been made toward addressing this crisis, including King County’s purchase of several hotels for transitional housing and continued investments by the city of Seattle to expand shelter capacity options and create more affordable housing. Likewise, we are moving toward a more comprehensive, coordinated and unified regional response with the formation of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Still, we have a long way to go.

Any sustainable solution to this humanitarian crisis must recognize the impacts of homelessness on all communities across our region while also focusing concentrated efforts on those areas where the crisis is most acute. This includes downtown Seattle, where roughly 800 people are living unsheltered each day.

DSA will continue to work with the KCRHA, stakeholders and local, regional and state government leaders to support and implement a plan that meaningfully addresses homelessness in our urban core.

Partnership for Zero Program

In February 2022, public and private funders launched the Partnership for Zero, a pilot program aimed at dramatically reducing the number of unsheltered individuals in concentrated areas around the region, starting in downtown Seattle. The partnership brings together the resources of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, the city of Seattle, King County and We Are In, a coalition of philanthropies, businesses, service providers, advocates and both housed and unhoused King County residents. The Partnership for Zero action plan is led and implemented by the KCRHA, which expects to achieve a significant reduction in downtown homelessness within one year’s time.

20000households access the King County homeless response system each year.

Source: King County Department of Community and Human Services

50%of those included in the last Point-in-Time Count (2020) were sleeping outside, despite the count being conducted during the coldest month of the year.

Source: All Home King County

90%of those living in encampments have been experiencing homelessness for more than a year.

Source: REACH, Public Defender Association

Public Safety Is Essential to Downtown Recovery

For downtown to be healthy and vibrant, it must be inclusive, meaning that everyone feels safe and welcome. Feeling safe in public spaces is essential to a sense of belonging. Important conversations are underway about the need to balance appropriate police services and the need to reduce force against Black and Indigenous people and other people of color in our community. All people must be treated with dignity and respect. At the same time, we need a level of police service that ensures an appropriate response to emergencies. We support a responsible approach to reimagining public safety that protects the human rights of every person while ensuring downtown is vibrant, safe and positioned to rapidly recover.

The ability to sustain downtown’s recovery is critically linked to the urgent need to address public safety. Since 2012, incidents of violent crime have increased by 60%. In the past year, violent crime has grown by 18%, primarily due to a large increase in the number of aggravated assaults. Similarly, property crime increased by 35% compared to 2020. Violent crime has been nearly double 2017’s rate in the past two years. In 2021, there were 82 incidents of arson downtown compared to six reported incidents in 2012. Similarly, motor vehicle thefts increased by 35%, going from 681 in 2020 to 920 in 2021.

In a recent DSA survey, only 24% of visitors said they feel safe downtown during the day, and just 14% said they feel safe at night. Creating a safe and welcoming environment is critical as the pandemic eases and more downtown employers bring their workers back into the office.

Incidents of Violent Crime Downtown

Source: Seattle Police Department SeaStat crime data. Downtown police beats analyzed were D1-3, E1-3, K1-3, M1-3, G1 and O1. Violent crimes, as reported by SPD, are homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.