Homelessness is Seattle voters' top concern in the 2021 election
The NPI team used the venerable Wordle app to build a word cloud with the text of the survey responses (Graphic by NPI)

Almost six years ago, in Novem­ber of 2015, the City of Seat­tle declared that home­less­ness in and around the Emer­ald City had become a cri­sis, with then-May­or Ed Mur­ray stat­ing in a civ­il emer­gency order that “mem­bers of our com­mu­ni­ty should not be forced… to live and sleep out­doors and on the street.”

In the time that has passed since, how­ev­er, the num­ber of peo­ple expe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness in and around Seat­tle has gone up, not down.

The city, coun­ty, and state have all enact­ed new laws and ordi­nances recent­ly in an attempt to address the cri­sis and pre­vent more peo­ple from becom­ing home­less, but our research shows that Seat­tle vot­ers feel strong­ly that the city needs to be doing more — a lot more — to get peo­ple into housing.

A whop­ping 68% of like­ly August 2021 Seat­tle vot­ers sur­veyed last week by Change Research for NPI iden­ti­fied address­ing home­less­ness as the pri­or­i­ty they most want the next May­or of Seat­tle to tack­le once sworn in.

13% cit­ed hous­ing costs and access to hous­ing — a close­ly relat­ed pri­or­i­ty — as a top con­cern they want the city’s incom­ing chief exec­u­tive to act on. And 9% specif­i­cal­ly men­tioned they want to see pub­lic hous­ing for low income Seattleites.

Here’s a word cloud that visu­al­ly demon­strates just how dom­i­nant of an issue address­ing home­less­ness is this elec­tion cycle for our respondents:

Homelessness is Seattle voters' top concern in the 2021 election
The NPI team used the ven­er­a­ble Wor­dle app to build a word cloud with the text of the sur­vey respons­es (Graph­ic by NPI)

“Home­less” and “home­less­ness” appeared over and over again in the respons­es sub­mit­ted to our open end­ed ques­tion about the work of Seat­tle’s next may­or, which are cod­ed below into cat­e­gories based on the themes that Change Research and the NPI team saw after sift­ing through them.

QUESTION: What poli­cies do you want to see Seattle’s next May­or imple­ment to improve the health of the city?

[Note: Respons­es cod­ed from open-end­ed submissions]


  • Address the city’s home­less­ness cri­sis: 68%
  • Police reform (defund, demil­i­ta­rize, change nature of): 18%
  • Improve pub­lic safe­ty and tack­le crime: 17%
  • Bring down hous­ing costs (i.e. through rent con­trol): 13%
  • Police sup­port (increase fund­ing, deploy more offi­cers): 10%

In addi­tion to the five top answers shown above, respon­dents also specif­i­cal­ly expressed sup­port for beau­ti­fy­ing the city (like through graf­fi­ti removal or pick­ing up trash — 9% of respon­dents iden­ti­fied that as a con­cern), pro­vid­ing pub­lic hous­ing for low income Seat­tleites (9% iden­ti­fied that as a con­cern), and bol­ster­ing the city’s infra­struc­ture (8% iden­ti­fied that as a concern).

Small­er per­cent­ages flagged addi­tion­al pri­or­i­ties they want the may­or to focus on:

  • more and bet­ter tran­sit (7%),
  • increase tax­es on the wealthy and cor­po­ra­tions (7%),
  • expand ser­vices for those strug­gling with addic­tion (6%),
  • sup­port the city’s busi­ness­es (6%),
  • improve parks (6%),
  • enforce laws (5%),
  • act on cli­mate and pro­tect the city’s envi­ron­ment (5%),
  • make down­town Seat­tle safer and more wel­com­ing (4%),
  • and help fam­i­lies with bet­ter child­care and edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties (4%).

Final­ly, 3% of respon­dents specif­i­cal­ly men­tioned they’d like the next may­or to focus on low­er­ing tax­es and anoth­er 3% men­tioned cham­pi­oning racial justice.

Many respon­dents’ answers con­sist­ed very sim­ply of “Address home­less­ness!” or some vari­a­tion there­of, while oth­ers offered lengthy and extreme­ly thor­ough com­men­taries on the state of the city and what they think their elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives are or aren’t doing to act on the issues of the day.

Because home­less­ness was such a pre­dom­i­nant theme in the respons­es, we’ve cre­at­ed a sec­ond word cloud that does­n’t have home­less­ness in it so you can see a sam­pling of oth­er words that were com­mon to the respons­es we received.

Supplementary word cloud from NPI's July 2021 survey of Seattle voters
This word cloud, also made with Wor­dle by the NPI team, does­n’t have home­less­ness in it, thus allow­ing oth­er words to be more promi­nent. (Graph­ic by NPI)

In all, five hun­dred and eighty-two out of the six hun­dred and sev­en­teen respon­dents answered this open end­ed ques­tion — a pret­ty high per­cent­age. Their respons­es cumu­la­tive­ly total 70,669 char­ac­ters and 11,090 words.

Our sur­vey was in the field through Mon­day, July 12th, through Thurs­day, July 15th. 617 like­ly August 2021 Seat­tle vot­ers took the sur­vey, with all par­tic­i­pat­ing online. The poll was con­duct­ed by Change Research for NPI, and has a mod­eled mar­gin of error of 4.3% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval.

This being Seat­tle, most respon­dents in the sur­vey iden­ti­fied as Demo­c­ra­t­ic or lean­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic. (The Emer­ald City is one of the bluest places, polit­i­cal­ly, in the Pacif­ic North­west). While most Demo­c­ra­t­ic respon­dents offered just a few words in response to our prompt above, there were a few who took full advan­tage of the oppor­tu­ni­ty to lay out a vision for what they want Seat­tle to be.

One respon­dent sketched out their ideas for Seat­tle’s next may­or pri­or­i­tize cre­at­ing a more con­nect­ed, liv­able city as follows:

Rapid expan­sion of sup­port­ive ser­vices, shel­ters and afford­able hous­ing to address the home­less­ness cri­sis. Sup­port for small busi­ness­es as the city’s econ­o­my recov­ers from the reces­sion cre­at­ed by the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. Invest­ments in tran­sit infra­struc­ture and mod­ern improve­ments to road­way design.

Anoth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic respon­dent wrote that they want to see the city lead where the state Leg­is­la­ture won’t, and invest tax dol­lars in ser­vices that help peo­ple rather than pun­ish­ing them or lock­ing them up. Their comments:

I want the next may­or to work for the peo­ple, not the police. I want invest­ment in peo­ple, not police. Meet the unhoused and addict­ed where they are with ser­vices. Flour­ish­ing pub­lic spaces. More P‑Patches to meet the grow­ing low-income hous­ing built with­out green spaces. The city mov­ing for­ward where the state won’t (UBI, munic­i­pal broad­band, safe injec­tion sites, no bail, hous­ing the unhoused, social work­ers in libraries) …

Still anoth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic respon­dent offered sim­i­lar thoughts:

Move fund­ing from police to social ser­vices, includ­ing address­ing [the] home­less pop­u­la­tion. Stay firm on stance toward mega employ­ers. Work with schools, fam­i­lies and child­care providers to serve all chil­dren. Sup­port adults who make too lit­tle to afford cost of liv­ing in Seat­tle. Use research to inform com­mu­ni­ty build­ing ver­sus allow­ing the news­pa­per to point out inequities in our city. Help uni­fy the city. Avoid busi­ness ver­sus socialists.

Help­ing peo­ple rather than cit­ing them or lock­ing them up was def­i­nite­ly a uni­fy­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic we saw across the Demo­c­ra­t­ic responses.

One Demo­c­ra­t­ic respon­dent explained that they want the city to inter­vene when prob­lems like noise pol­lu­tion arise… they just want the city to send first respon­ders who aren’t police to pro­vide a non-puni­tive response:

Find a way oth­er than the police to han­dle civic cas­es. Fire­works go off every sin­gle night in my neigh­bor­hood, and the cops say they can’t respond unless it involves alco­hol or vio­lence. There also was a protest ral­ly for Don­ald Trump last sum­mer in my neigh­bor­hood, and the cops said the same thing. I don’t want to call the cops for these types of things, but I would like to be able to call on some pub­lic ser­vice law-enforce­ment group that could help with­out incrim­i­nat­ing those who are either break­ing the law or caus­ing trouble.

Repub­li­can respon­dents who answered our ques­tion had very dif­fer­ent takes.

“Stop giv­ing mon­ey to the home­less!” one wrote. “It just brings them to our city. Start fund­ing the police. Quit allow­ing pro­test­ers to ruin our streets.”

“Reverse a major­i­ty of poli­cies enact­ed by mayor/city coun­cil over the past sev­er­al years,” wrote anoth­er, with­out elab­o­rat­ing further.

“More police, crack down on crime down­town, get the home­less out of pub­lic parks, get a move on repair­ing the West Seat­tle Bridge. Actu­al­ly charge those arrest­ed for any vio­lent crimes, van­dal­ism, riot­ing, and pros­e­cute the offend­ers instead of releas­ing [them]. Sup­port the police!” wrote a third.

(Empha­sis is the respondent’s).

Respon­dents iden­ti­fy­ing as inde­pen­dents expressed a few of the same sen­ti­ments as the Repub­li­cans who left com­ments, but unlike the Repub­li­cans, many of them expressed inter­est in find­ing and imple­ment­ing “solu­tions” for the unhoused as opposed to dis­man­tling encamp­ments with sweeps, or oth­er puni­tive measures.

One char­ac­ter­ized home­less­ness this way:

It is a com­pli­cat­ed prob­lem that has not been addressed by our city lead­er­ship. The tax­pay­ing cit­i­zens and small street lev­el busi­ness­es are the not get­ting what they con­tribute to the good. Crime lingers in the shad­ows of the home­less camps and is unchecked.

Life has con­se­quences. We can­not con­tin­ue to let peo­ple who are not capa­ble of mak­ing good deci­sions live in the streets.

Not my fault, not the fault of the small busi­ness own­er, but we are the only ones suf­fer­ing the con­se­quences of poor deci­sions. The poor deci­sions have crept into city hall and our cur­rent coun­cil are unable and not equipped to deal with the com­pli­cat­ed problems.

Con­tin­ued street liv­ing is not a solu­tion. It is time for solutions.

“Solu­tions” also stood out in this response from anoth­er independent:

Faster improve­ment to pub­lic trans­porta­tion; real solu­tions to home­less­ness not just clear­ing them away from where we can see them; more activ­i­ties for youth.

Still anoth­er inde­pen­dent put it even more sim­ply, and paired their desire for action on home­less­ness with their desire of action on hous­ing costs:

House the home­less. Do some­thing to curb the cost of housing/home buy­ing and assist those who rent to feel more secure.

The bot­tom line? Regard­less of age, par­ty affil­i­a­tion, gen­der, or race, Seat­tleites real­ly, real­ly want their next may­or to make address­ing home­less­ness and pub­lic safe­ty in the city their top pri­or­i­ties. There is a strong desire for results over rhetoric. While respon­dents diverge on how to get there, they are in agree­ment that there needs to be action. What the city has done to date just isn’t sufficient.

Inter­est­ed in the find­ings we’re pre­vi­ous­ly released from this sur­vey? Then we sug­gest read­ing these Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate posts next:

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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