Queen Anne & Magnolia News file photo: People have different ideas on what the root cause of homelessness is in Seattle, but two researchers maintain the problem stems from a lack of all housing, but especially affordable housing.
Queen Anne & Magnolia News file photo: People have different ideas on what the root cause of homelessness is in Seattle, but two researchers maintain the problem stems from a lack of all housing, but especially affordable housing.

According to two researchers familiar with homelessness and housing in the Puget Sound, one of the biggest obstacles keeping residents, community organizations and governments from addressing the problem is a lack of understanding what is causing the dilemma in the first place.

In “The Real Cause — Homelessness in Seattle,” Kollin Min, formerly of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Dr. Gregg Colburn, of the University of Washington, shared their insights on what explains the homelessness situation in Seattle and what can be done to improve the situation, during a virtual Initiative on Community Engagement presentation, last week.

Min, who is an attorney with more than 20 years experience in nonprofit, governmental and private sectors, said he’s lived in Seattle for the past 30 years and has been working on housing homelessness issues for most of that time. The problem with homelessness is as bad as it has ever been, he said.

Many people, Min said, have different ideas on what the problem behind homelessness is, such as drug addiction, mental illness, social services that are too generous and drawing people from other parts of the country, a lack of shelter beds or permanent housing.

“And unless you’re careful and really follow the data and the evidence, and dig deep to understand what is happening, then I think that you set the conditions for the kinds of paralysis that we’re seeing in our region today,” Min said.

“You have communities that spend money on one set of solutions, and, when they don’t work, they’re considered a failure, and you wonder why nothing is changing, and so, without a common diagnosis for what’s really causing the problem, it’s very hard to come up with meaningful solutions, particularly on a problem that’s as complicated and as multi-faceted as homelessness,” he added.

Min said, with their presentation, they hoped people will have a better idea about what is actually causing homelessness and create deeper discussion in Queen Anne and Seattle to come up with solutions that work.

According to his bio, Min is a former senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation leading the Puget Sound Family Homelessness Initiative, a 10-year study conducted by the foundation that examined family homelessness. He previously served as the Seattle/Washington state director for Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., a national nonprofit housing intermediary.

Min said the initiative on family homelessness conducted by the Gates Foundation aimed at decreasing homelessness by increasing outflow of families into permanent housing.

One of things researchers studied, Min said, was what measures were in place to help families experiencing homelessness and what was most effective in getting them out.

One thing researchers learned early on is that, while the counties had many good programs to help families experiencing homelessness, few of them were coordinated.

Another finding, he said, was that agencies weren’t doing a good job differentiating the needs between families experiencing homelessness. He said researchers learned that some families needed fewer intervention and services to successfully transition into permanent housing as initially thought. In those cases, conditions placed on receiving help only delayed people entering permanent housing and were not an effective use of resources.

During the study, there was also a culture shift made to get agencies to carefully record different data and use that information to make best decisions on investments.

“We are a very data-driven organization at the Gates Foundation, and we wanted the counties to really up their game in terms of understanding the tools they had available for them to make better decisions about how they invested resources,” Min said.

Even after the improvements and efficiencies were made, however, Min said, at the end of the study, researchers had not anticipated that the number of families experiencing homelessness at the beginning of the study in 2009 would increase as much as it did over the last decade.

In his presentation, Colburn, who is an assistant professor at the University of Washington College of Built Environments, Department of Real Estate, discussed the causes of homelessness.

Colburn is also a member of the Bill & Melinda Gates Family Homelessness Evaluation Committee and co-chair of the University of Washington’s Homelessness Research Initiative.

Colburn shared some of the  conclusions he made about the cause of homelessness based on research included in a soon-to-be-released book, “Homelessness is a Housing Problem,” he co-wrote with Clayton Aldern. The book explores the “substantial variation rates in homelessness apparent in cities across the United States,” according to Colburn’s bio.

In their book, the pair analyzed different factors frequently attributed to contributing to homelessness, such as mental illness, and determined how much of an impact they actually had.

In answering the question of what causes homelessness, Colburn said, “It depends.”

Rather than identifying specific social factors, such as divorce and separation, as the root cause of homelessness, he considers those as potentially precipitating events that lead to a bout of homelessness.

“Because if divorce and separation were the true root cause of homelessness, we should have far more homelessness, given that 50 percent of all marriages end up in divorce,” he said.

Colburn used a game of musical chairs as an analogy in determining what the root cause of a problem is, as opposed to just contributing factors. Rather than attribute one player’s loss of his chair in the game to a broken foot being on crutches, Colburn said, really, the root cause is not enough chairs for the number of players.

Colburn said there is no doubt that mental illness, drug addiction, poverty and other factors contribute to people’s individual homelessness.

“But the challenge then is, why do those conditions, drug use, mental illness and poverty manifest themselves as homelessness in some locations but not necessarily in all locations?” Colburn said. “Because if they are the root cause of homelessness, then we should see high rates of homelessness wherever there are high rates of drug use, mental illness and poverty, for example.”

Based on his research, however, which he reviewed in the presentation, that is not the case, and neither are other arguments given as causes as homelessness.

Essentially, Colburn said, the root cause of homelessness comes down to available affordable housing, or in Seattle’s case, not enough of any housing.

While Colburn and Min didn’t provide an easy pathway to solving the homeless crisis in Seattle, they did suggest more housing of all types could offer the best results.

“This is a problem we can solve,” Colburn said. “Poverty is really tough. Racism is really tough, but this is something we can solve.”

Last week was the fourth presentation in the Initiative on Community Engagement series, hosted by Queen Anne volunteers Beth Bunnell and Paula Mueller, both members of the Queen Anne Community Council. The series focuses on issues of concern facing residents with the purpose of educating them, creating dialog and promoting ways to get involved.

To learn more about Colburn’s research and his book, visit https://homelessnesshousingproblem.com/. For more information about housing in King County, www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/why-does-prosperous-king-county-have-a-homelessness-crisis. To watch a recording of the presentation on Youtube, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yo8QoMqyotU.