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Homelessness is declining nationwide, but the numbers are still large. The latest government estimates show more than a million people used a homeless shelter at some point in 2013. And one wealthy city is seeing its numbers going the wrong way. Seattle's homeless population has been rising for a decade. It now ranks fourth in the nation for the number of homeless people. From member station KUOW, John Ryan reports.
JOHN RYAN: Homeless shelters in the Seattle area turn people away each night. Waitlists for low-income housing are years long and cars and tents serving as makeshift homes can be spotted all over Seattle and the rest of King County.
ANGI DAVIS: There's somebody living underneath that box truck right there.
RYAN: Angi Davis takes me on a tour of the mostly industrial SoDo area south of downtown Seattle. She heads a business group concerned with safety in the area.
DAVIS: ...Sleeping bag and a bunch of stuff pushed underneath there, so he got a little bit of shelter from the weather.
RYAN: We drive by one stretch of sidewalk where cardboard box homes squat between a razor-wire fence and a Mercedes.
DAVIS: I would not walk down that street by myself.
RYAN: According to the latest count in January, more than 3,700 people live on the streets of King County. The number of people sleeping outside shot up by 20 percent in just the past year. At the wheel of her Mercedes, Davis asks...
DAVIS: Why is it other big cities don't have the same issue?
RYAN: Talk to even a few homeless people and you'll quickly find out you can wind up on the streets for lots of different reasons. For many people, like Aaron McPhatter, it's losing a job. He and his girlfriend have been staying at shelters in downtown Seattle for about five months.
AARON MCPHATTER: I worked on that tunnel job down there at the Husky Stadium. And I was doing really good. And then all of a sudden, we got laid off. I need some work.
RYAN: McPhatter is 58. He says he can't do the heavy construction work he used to.
MCPHATTER: I just work whenever I can find work. Live from day to day, just trying to pick up something that I can get us enough money to where we can get out of here.
RYAN: Affordable housing is the big problem, says homeless veteran Gary Eyerly.
GARY EYERLY: They need to quit trying to charge $1,300 a month for a 400-square-foot studio.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, like they're doing in the U-District.
EYERLY: It's the Seattle gold rush. Go buy an old apartment building, put some new paint on it, triple the rent - wow, I'm a millionaire.
RYAN: Medical problems push others out of their homes. Jonathan Murrell says his life spiraled out of control after he broke his neck in a car accident.
JONATHAN MURRELL: That changed my life, you know what I'm saying? A few years later, I'm still trying to pick up the pieces, you know? I've been through some real tough times and I mean I'm down at the rock-bottom right now. I have nothing. Now, I feel like it's nowhere to go but up from here.
RYAN: It's been a decade since King County unveiled its 10-year plan to end homelessness. At the time, the Bush administration focused on ending chronic homelessness. That's a small but costly fraction of the problem. Close to 200 communities around the country, including King County, aimed higher.
VINCE MATULIONIS: My name's Vince Matulionis. I work at the United Way of King County as their director of ending homelessness.
RYAN: That's a pretty ambitious job title.
MATULIONIS: It's a very ambitious job title, but that's our aspiration. In a community like ours, we shouldn't have thousands of people that are homeless.
RYAN: Seattle's liberal voters and politicians don't mind spending money on social problems. And there's a lot of money here. All told, under the 10-year plan put together by a public-private partnership called the Committee to End Homelessness, roughly a billion dollars has gone to the cause. More housing has been built for the homeless here than anywhere except New York or LA, yet the effort is losing ground.
Leaders of the Committee to End Homelessness point to an economy that is generating wealth and poverty in large amounts. Still, that doesn't explain why things are getting worse in Seattle when they aren't nationally. One reason, according to Vince Matulionis, the 10-year plan didn't focus enough on root causes, like the lack of affordable housing in this booming metropolis.
MATULIONIS: Seattle's the fastest-growing city in the country last year. So, rich, poor and otherwise, we attract a lot of people here. A lot of people get here and find that they struggle with the cost of living and the cost of housing.
RYAN: The 10-year plan focused on providing permanent homes for the homeless rather than shelter beds. But even low-income housing is expensive and slow to build. The county wound up with even more people lacking shelter of any kind. One program the committee created to get families back into homes hasn't worked well. We'll hear more about that tomorrow on All Things Considered. The Committee to End Homelessness has been working to revise its strategy to focus more on root causes. Here's Vince Matulionis.
MATULIONIS: We're never going to be able to build enough housing if we don't reduce the number of people becoming homeless.
RYAN: The committee's goal of ending homelessness? It's being replaced with a less lofty one - making homelessness rare and brief when it does occur. For NPR News, I'm John Ryan in Seattle.
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