This page provides an overview of homelessness in Washington State, including examples of local government homelessness prevention and assistance programs, coordination efforts at the state and regional levels, and other recommended resources.
MRSC also offers pages with information on Homeless Shelter and Housing Options and the Regulation of Unauthorized Camping, Loitering, and Solicitation of Aid
Homelessness is the condition where an individual does not have a stable or reliable residence on a daily basis. This means that the individual is without a fixed nighttime residence and may sleep in a shelter with temporary accommodations or in a place that is not designated specifically for human habitation. Although, the term “homeless” has been commonly used to refer to individuals living under these conditions, several alternative identifiers have been presented recently as preferred terms including “person experiencing homelessness," “houseless," or “unhoused."
The Washington State Department of Commerce acts as the main coordinator of local and state-level homeless programs and resources through its Homeless Assistance and Preventions Programs and the Office of Homeless Youth. As well as providing funding, guidance, and technical assistance to local communities, Commerce also coordinates the annual, point-in-time count of persons experiencing homelessness in Washington and tracks and reports progress on reducing homelessness in conjunction with local jurisdictions. MRSC highly recommends contacting them regarding any homeless prevention efforts.
Key Contributors to Homelessness
Root causes of homelessness vary widely, but include:
- Availability of affordable housing
- Substance abuse
- Interpersonal conflict
- Mental health
In 2017, the Seattle Human Services Department released the results of a survey of 1,050 people living outside and in public shelters to further understand their situations and needs, and to better inform the city’s responses to homelessness. Survey responses confirmed that affordable housing availability, substance abuse and mental health issues are key contributors to homelessness. Additionally, the survey showed that homelessness affects Black/African Americans, Latinos/Hispanics, Native Americans and the LGBTQ community disproportionately.
Local Government Responses to Address Homelessness
Local governments can address homelessness by:
- Preventing individuals from becoming homeless
- Assisting those that are currently experiencing homelessness
Prevention involves identifying and getting in contact with those at risk and providing assistance to them, while helping individuals experiencing homelessness usually entails providing them with some type of safe shelter/housing and needed services to address the reasons why they are unsheltered.
The most effective way to address homelessness is through prevention. Prevention results in fewer individuals being displaced from their current residences, often accomplished through governmental programs. Some of these programs, for example, provide emergency or short-term rent assistance, helping to keep individuals housed in their current homes. Studies have shown that it is more difficult for individuals that were once unsheltered to find permanent housing and, therefore, may be more likely to experience homelessness again in the future (see for example this case study from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health).
Purely from a public investment perspective, in comparison to the most cost-effective approach to providing shelter or housing for individuals experiencing homelessness, homelessness prevention efforts cost $6,000 less per successful exit per household and the cost per day is nearly half (see Cost of Shelter and Housing per Intervention section below). That being said, prevention can often be difficult to execute, given the complexity in trying to identify individuals at risk of experiencing homelessness.
Using Data to Identify At-Risk Individuals
One useful way to utilize and identify key data for prevention is through a Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). The state of Washington formally established a Homeless Management Information System through RCW 43.185C.180, and helps to provide municipalities with all the data that is needed in order to identify those at risk of becoming homeless. HMIS is also used by state and federally funded homeless and housing service providers to collect and manage data gathered while providing housing assistance to people already experiencing homelessness and households at risk of losing their housing.
Below are prevention programs from the Washington State Department of Commerce:
- Treasury Rent Assistance Program (T-RAP)
- Utility payment assistance: Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
- Coordinated Entry Programs by County – Provides master list of programs for people who may, or already are, experiencing homelessness.
The below resource is from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research:
- Strategies for Preventing Homelessness (2005) – Provides a comprehensive guidebook of strategies
In order to provide a place to reside for individuals who are currently experiencing homelessness, municipalities can provide many different types of shelter and housing options, which is often done in partnership with non-profit organizations. These options can range from providing night-by-night shelter to a long-term place to live.
Below is a list of the most common shelter and housing options. For a more detailed list, including examples, see MRSC’s page on Homeless Shelter and Housing Options.
- Emergency Shelters: A facility that provides a temporary shelter for individuals or families who are currently homeless. Emergency shelter may not require occupants to enter into a lease or an occupancy agreement. Emergency shelter facilities may include day and warming centers that do not provide overnight accommodations (RCW 36.70A.030)
- Emergency Housing: Temporary indoor accommodations for individuals or families who are homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless that is intended to address the basic health, food, clothing, and personal hygiene needs of individuals or families. Emergency housing may or may not require occupants to enter into a lease or an occupancy agreement (RCW 36.70A.030).
- Transitional Housing: A facility that provides housing and supportive services to homeless individuals or families for up to two years and whose primary purpose is to enable homeless individuals or families to move into independent living and permanent housing (RCW 84.36.043 and WAC 458-16-320)
- Permanent Supportive Housing: Subsidized, leased housing with no limit on length of stay that prioritizes people who need comprehensive support services to retain tenancy and utilizes admissions practices designed to use lower barriers to entry than would be typical for other subsidized or unsubsidized rental housing, especially related to rental history, criminal history, and personal behaviors (RCW 36.70A.030).
Counties are required to report all expenditures for homeless housing projects, by funding source (RCW 43.185c.045). The table below is taken from Commerce's 2019 Annual Report on Homelessness and is included here to give a rough estimate of the cost of shelter, housing, and prevention options. Commerce combines data from the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data to arrive at cost per day and cost per exit totals shown in the table below. This is not, however, a complete list of options on which Commerce collects data.
In the chart below, it can be seen that each shelter and housing type has inherent positives and negatives, depending on program priorities. For example, emergency shelters are more expensive than transitional housing per day while the cost per successful exit is lower than transitional housing. These cost considerations can also be analyzed alongside the level of care and quality of experience typically seen in these facilities. However, it should be noted that preventative measures are by far the most cost-effective way to address homelessness.
|Emergency Shelter||Transitional Housing||Permanent Supportive Housing||Homeless Prevention|
|Cost of Beds||$11,054||$4,427||$11,745||$15,058|
|Cost per day per household||$36.77||$28.98||$30.21||$16.55|
|Cost per successful exit per household||$11,114||$15,805||N/A||$4,202|
Source: Washington State Department of Commerce’s 2019 Annual Report on Homelessness
Under the requirements of the Washington Homelessness Housing and Assistance Act (Ch. 43.185C RCW) and in order to qualify for most funding sources, counties must complete a five-year plan to address homelessness in their communities, which usually involves a cooperative plan between city and county governments together with local nonprofits, businesses and faith communities. The Act does allow cities to independently opt-in to the planning process and one city, Spokane, has done so (Spokane 5-Year Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness).
Examples of County Plans
- Skagit County 5-Year Homeless Housing Plan (2019-2024) – Covers five main objectives for addressing housing the homeless in Skagit County and provides the background and local context
- Whatcom County Strategic Plan to End Homelessness (2019) – Establishes foundational pillars and strategies that align with and expand on statewide goals and objectives
- Yakima County 5-Year Plan to Address Homelessness (2019-2024) – Explains the plan development process, the state objectives, and the local context for their 5-year plan
For additional examples of countywide plans, including those with partnership/coordination approaches (as discussed below), see the Department of Commerce page on County Plans and Annual Reports.
Homelessness is often a regional challenge with workable solutions that often extend beyond the boundaries and resources of most local governments, so many planning and implementation efforts take place at the county level. Typically, city and county governments work with and through nonprofits and housing authorities, both to build and operate facilities and administer related programs for the homeless. Money may come from a variety of sources, including federal, state, county, city, and private funding. Building a regional network of partners and stakeholders is critical for a successful plan.
Examples of County Plans with Partnership Approaches
- Douglas-Chelan Counties Interlocal Agreement (2015) – Participating jurisdictions signed an interlocal agreement, naming the City of Wenatchee as the implementing agency for the Chelan-Douglas County Program. A Homeless Housing Task Force, made up of local agency representatives, meets periodically to update priorities for homeless services/programs and reviews progress made on achieving objectives and activities identified in the plan.
- King County Regional Homelessness Authority (RHA) – Established through an Interlocal Agreement between Seattle and King County (2019). Cities and sub-regions have the option of signing an administrative service agreement with the RHA, in order to further unify and coordinate services across King County.
- Homelessness & Housing Toolkit for Cities – This publication created in partnership between MRSC and the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) provides real-world examples of tools and actions Washington cities have used in responding to the issues of homelessness and affordable housing, including information on housing levies, tenant protections, tax exemptions, regional coalitions, emergency rental assistance, and more.
- Blog posts about Homelessness – Articles written by MRSC staff and guest authors addressing the topic of homelessness, including profiles of successful approaches
- National Alliance to End Homelessness
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Homelessness Resources
- Washington Department of Commerce: Homeless Housing and Prevention Programs
- Washington Department of Veterans Affairs: Homeless Veterans Services