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Inside Seattle's homelessness crisis

Seattle’s Mayor talks contributing factors while two moms report from the front lines

Lunch at Hope Place, a shelter for women and children in South Seattle.

Photo: Joshua Huston


Kristine Moreland lives in Kirkland with her husband and 5-year-old son, but every Tuesday she heads to downtown Seattle with Union Gospel Mission’s Search & Rescue — teams of volunteers who hand out food, toiletries and blankets to Seattle’s homeless. She’s done this more than five years and says it’s about being a constant for the homeless community. She gives hugs, listens to people’s stories and builds trust with individuals who don’t have a lot of consistency in their lives. 

Last November, Mayor Ed Murray declared Seattle’s homeless crisis a state of emergency, saying it was clear that the city didn’t have the all of the resources needed to solve the crisis. 

“In order to really move this forward, it was clear we needed to ask the federal and state government for help,” Murray said in an interview with Seattle’s Child. Seattle is not the first; both Portland and Hawaii have declared states of emergency in response to growing homeless populations. 

The mayor puts the scope of the problem into perspective: “During the Great Depression, there were 3,000 homeless school-age children in Washington state. Today, that number is 30,000.” 

Our state’s population has grown more than 330 percent since then; however, the number of homeless children has grown by an astounding 900 percent in the same span.  

“Something pretty profound is happening,” says Murray. “You see contributing factors everywhere; 35 years of cutting affordable housing, underfunding of mental health care resources, income inequality and a real heroin epidemic.” 

In January, 1,100 volunteers participated in King County’s annual One Night Count and found 4,505 men, women and children without shelter, an increase of 19 percent over 2015. This number doesn’t reflect the thousands living in shelters, transitional housing, or staying with friends and relatives. Sadly, 28 percent of the homeless are families with children.

“It’s tangible for sure,” Moreland acknowledges. “We serve more people than ever before,” including the estimated 30 to 40 children under age 17 she sees out on the street each week.

Moreland started by collecting coats and donating them to Union Gospel Mission. Her coat drives caught the eye of UGM president Jeff Lilley, who asked her to go out on a Search & Rescue. She declined, then relented, and hasn’t looked back. 

Last year Moreland founded a nonprofit, MORElove, to increase her impact. She says she doesn’t expect everyone to do what she does: “Start small, start where you are comfortable. Any little thing can help. I will have a mom call me and say she can’t make a financial contribution, but she’s great at knitting and she has three free hours in the evening each week. Perfect; we’ll have her knit hats.”

At Hope Place, a UGM shelter for women and children in South Seattle, I spoke with Deedra, a mother of three kids ranging in age from 7 months to 6 years old. She left an abusive relationship last year and says she’s struggled to keep her family sheltered, while trying to surround herself with people who would be a positive influence.  

“You subject your kids to things that you would never want to as a parent,” says Deedra. She sees the toll homelessness takes on her children in the form of embarrassment, fear and simple things like missing school. Her son’s happy to be back at school now. “He loves to read, loves to learn. He loves school. He wants to go,” she says. 

Hope Place, which can house around 120 women and 60 kids at any given time, turns away 150 or more women each month, according to in-patient programs administrator Katelyn Scott. 

She sees several factors affecting the increasing homeless population — the cost of living in Seattle, difficulty finding affordable housing, economic hardships. Women who come to Hope Place are also more likely to have experienced childhood maltreatment. “Ultimately, the women who enter Hope Place have experienced a lot more childhood trauma, abuse, abandonment and neglect than the general population,” says Scott. 

“I’m here because I want to change my life,” says Deedra, who urges other mothers in similar situations to reach out. “It’s hard to seek help,” she says. “But think about how your situation will affect your kids in the long run. Talk to them. And get help for them.” 

Union Gospel Mission, like so many local nonprofits, relies 100 percent on the financial generosity of supporters; monetary donations are always welcome. Scott stresses the importance of volunteers who serve in the kitchen, help facilitate classes and show residents love and respect. 

Families with children who have nowhere to stay in King County should call 2-1-1 for info or a referral to Family Housing Connection

Washington State Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-562-6025

Union Gospel Mission www.ugm.org 

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