Look At My Face: Portrait of Homelessness in King County
Each day we walk the streets of this great city off to our jobs and important plans. We ignore the homeless men and women hoping to pass by them unscathed, our meager change that we so desperately need remaining in our pockets as we push on, suddenly finding interest in our phones, the floor, the display of a shop, anything to keep us from making eye contact. We think to ourselves why don’t those bums get a job? But they are doing their jobs: surviving the streets.
When most of us think of the homeless we think of old, dirty men panhandling supposedly for drugs or alcohol, but the truth is, that this image, while being one face of homelessness, is certainly not the whole portrait of homelessness in Washington. In fact, the numbers will surprise you.
55% of the Homeless in King County are families with children.1 The reason why we do not see this disheartening majority on the street is because often times single moms (who are typically the sole provider) are very good at hiding their homelessness: kids are registered under an old address so that they are able to go to school where they will receive food, shelter, and education; food banks and hygiene centers mask the appearance of homelessness; and family aid programs keep clothes on their backs. However, what these kids call home is a car, a neighbor's couch, or a homeless shelter. According to Seattle Local Health Guide, there are currently 24,038 youths (18 and under) living in some stage of homelessness. The majority are less than school age.
Of the 242,00 children living in poverty in washington 1 in 10 is homeless. 2
Currently, Washington ranks 39th in the nation for homeless people and 35th in the percent of children who are homeless. We are also 23rd for the risk of childhood homelessness making our overall rank 25th in the nation.see 2 These numbers may pale in comparison to other states, but even one child is left on the streets is one child too many.
According to the One Night Count Survey 8,830 homeless people were found on the streets of King County*** in January 2012. Of this number they found the following:
The overwhelming majority of these men and women want employment and education services. They have a clean criminal background, and over half of them have a positive work history. Most have never been evicted from their home.see 4
If there is one positive thing we can find in surveys and statistics of the homeless it is in the success of youth shelters. Surveys show 60% of young adults between the ages of 13-25 are currently living in transitional homes.
With several federally funded transitional youth programs and many more non-profit support systems in Washington are doing their part to help those in need of aid and to ensure that our young people get the best possible future. They look beyond the blanket portrait of homelessness and lend a helping hand to those who need it most. Children living in abject poverty face serious hindrances later on in life including higher rates of asthma, learning disabilities, developmental problems, and PTSD. Youths (13-25) face serious problems, including high risks of HIV most likely due to sexual assaults, survival sex (sexual favors in exchange for food, shelter, clothing, etc), and sharing needles, in addition to co-occurring mental health and substance abuse issues. Many street youths come from backgrounds and circumstances out of their control such as being thrown out of their homes (21% of street youths are from the LGBTQ community, the majority of which have been kicked out by their parent or legal guardian), or aging out of the foster care system. Many more come from homes in which their parent or legal guardian abused drugs and alcohol and upwards of three-fourths of homeless youths reported experiencing sexual/physical abuse. 6
In many ways, homeless youths are a lot like normal adolescents: all bluster and attitude, but for street kids it is not merely the facade a stable child puts on during the growing pains of their formative years, it is a literal plate of armor meant to protect them from victimization. Their baggy clothing and grave looks give the appearance of ferocity, however most of these kids are scared, for as much as shelters provide, they cannot do everything.
“I usually spend two nights a week outside.” says “Sean” a young man of 24 who has spent over 7 years on the streets. On the nights where he is turned away from shelters, Sean sleeps on a sidewalk or what he refers to as “sketchy places”. Sean’s personal story, particularly his battle with heroin addiction, represents another dangerous problem among street youth. Most street youths are not homeless because they do drugs, it is quite the opposite: these kids turn to drugs as a way of self medication. Sean is one of the lucky few to have survived the streets so long and he knows it, often giving words of wisdom to unfortunate newcomers: “Try to make friends and get out of the situation as fast as possible. Especially if you want to live.”
***Numbers are based on a population count of less than 9,000 though the Washington State Coalition to end homelessness estimates that 24,000 persons are homeless on a given night.