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Why Are People Homeless?

Recently, a friend asked me to explain why so many people experience homelessness. This led to a lengthy conversation; in which I was not able to give her a single, concise reason.

In my job I am regularly asked why people are homeless. I’ve worked at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission over seven years, and during this time I have discovered new meaning in the scripture, “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me.” (Mk. 14:7).

Jesus declares this after a woman anoints him with expensive perfume to which Judas responds she could have sold her perfume and given the money to the poor. However, again, Jesus says there will always be people in need, and we can do good to them anytime.

King County feels like another planet compared to ancient Palestine, and yet the poor, just as in Jesus' day the poor are with us and right now they are increasing in numbers.

There are different ways of measuring homelessness, here are a couple of resources we use to measure data:

The One Night Count

The method for this count is to mobilize volunteers to disperse in the community between the hours of 2-5am on a single night in January and physically count as many people as they find that are experiencing homelessness. Additionally, anyone staying in a shelter or transitional housing is also counted. These numbers are used by All Home King County and HUD to raise awareness and develop plans to help engage those experiencing homelessness.

Homelessness continues to rise

For the first time there were more unsheltered people than those in shelters.

McKinney – Vento

McKinney – Vento is the name of the federal act that ensures a student who is experiencing homelessness has certain rights as it pertains to education. School aged students who lack a fixed, regular, adequate nighttime residence are eligible for McKinney-Vento benefits. The McKinney-Vento count is voluntary, and is a way for measuring school aged students who may be experiencing homelessness. This report can tell us a little more about how poverty and homelessness may be affecting a city or region.

Even our school aged children are affected by homelessness.

211 Data

King County 211 connects people to the help they need. The Hotline and website share comprehensive information on health and human services in King County.

We often use 211 information to see how many calls are made to people seeking to access services. The 211 hotline and website also help us discern where there may be existing resources in a community and where there may be a lack of resources.


We recommend that as you prepare to engage an issue in your community, you find out more about it. Hit the streets and talk to people who are already engaged in the work. Look at the information you can find for your area, census tracks, free and reduced lunch information, poverty levels, housing vacancies, and information on homelessness can all add to a comprehensive picture of what is happening in your community.

As we do this work, we want to fall in love with the problem, and not just our solutions. If you would like to talk to someone about how to do a local assessment, feel free to email Dawn Zern dzern@ugm.orgto find out more.

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