Homeless in Tacoma: A City Club of Tacoma Program

Richard Smaby
Homeless with no where to go but pitch a tent on Tacoma Avenue
Homeless with no where to go but pitch a tent on Tacoma Avenue
The News Tribune Photo Essay by Matt Driscoll
How do we end homelessness in Pierce County? What will it take for everyone to cross the threshold into permanent homes? The City Club of Tacoma hosted a dinner program November 4, 2015 on homelessness in Tacoma and Pierce County. Julie Petersen, Senior Director for Policy at the Foundation for Healthy Generations, moderated a discussion with Troy Christensen, Chief Operating and Strategy Officer of Metropolitan Development Council, focused on reducing poverty and providing access to housing, education and employment, Tess Colby of Pierce County Community Connections, and Colin DeForrest of City of Tacoma Neighborhood and Community Services. They shared information and their experiences with homelessness in the recent decade.

Troy Christensen opened the program with an overview of the varieties of family types, living conditions, and needs, which showed the complexity of the problem. Among the homeless there are single men, single women, families with no children, families with a single parent, unaccompanied youth, veterans, persons with HIV Aids, transgender people. They live in conditions ranging from people with literally no place to stay, through kids staying with friends, people in motels until the money runs out, people in shelters (limited to 90 days), people in transitional housing (a two year limit), people in temporary housing, and finally ending with those that find permanent housing. The combination of each of these types of people and families combined with each of these living situations combined with the variety programs focusing on various parts of the problem creates a matrix of different cases. Some programs focus on securing permanent housing, others on transitional housing for up to 24 months, others offer emergency shelters for up to 90 days, and some strive to serve people who are completely unsheltered, meaning they live out of a car, in an abandoned building, or under a bridge. There are people who are precariously housed, as is the case for people living in hotels until their money runs out and children who are doubled up with another family. One size does not fit all.

All these different needs and programs make it clear why it is so difficult to quantify the problem and report out on progress. And then we have the problem of trying to find people to get them services.

We have learned from POTUS efforts to combat homelessness among veterans that there are some tools that can make a bigger difference. Starting 2 years ago the Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development provided significant targeted federal funding for homeless veterans. It is important that all providers come together for a community solution as opposed to separate organizations each doing their missions. We have a finite list of every veteran that comes to a drop-in center or shelter, so we know who out there needs housing and have a way to contact them. Finally, we need a clear definition of what ending homelessness means. For veterans the goal is “functional zero,” which means to immediately provide shelter and that within 90 days a person goes from homelessness to permanent housing. The goal for the whole country is to be at functional zero for veteran homelessness at the end of this calendar year.

Currently in Pierce County the time from initial contact with a homeless veteran to permanent housing is just under 30 days. This success is made easier because we have just 2 contractors for veterans instead of 15 or 20 agencies. The fact that we have been able to track the process, document it, and analyze it has been very helpful. We don’t yet have immediate shelter options targeted specifically for veterans.

Tess Colby of Pierce County Community Connections documented the progress. We hope to replicate the success with veterans in other populations. Pierce County Community Connections has $12 million to fund various programs in the county. We also do point-in-time-counts to measure the success of program for homeless. The counting started on January 22, 2010 and is done by volunteers. Some populations are reticent to be counted for a variety of reasons.

The last count was done in January of 2015. We counted 1283 people. That number includes people who are sheltered in emergency shelters or temporary housing and unsheltered. Most of the people, 60%, were single adults. About 3/4 of that group were sheltered. 1283 is the lowest number that we have counted since 2010. So, the good news is that the general population of homeless is declining.

On the negative side, the number of people that are unsheltered has increased dramatically. We counted 341 people who were unsheltered. The number is likely much higher, since the days on which we did the count were rainy and cold and people found some place else to be besides the streets or encampments. Most of those unsheltered are individuals or households without children. About half of the unsheltered are chronically homeless, i.e., homeless and unsheltered for more than a year.

African Americans are disproportionately represented in the homeless population. They constitute about 7% of the population in Pierce County, but they were 25% of the people we counted. Inside the programs we find they are around 38% of those being served.

About 1/3 of the unsheltered population were women, which creates special concerns about safety.

We don’t get a clear picture of how many families are unsheltered, because they are frequently reluctant to be counted.

There is another resource we have that can give us the total annual magnitude of homelessness. We at Pierce County Community Connections fund a specialized intake program called Access Point for Housing. It is the centralized point of access to all of our housing support services. In 2014 Access Point for Housing received 12,600 calls from unsheltered or precariously housed. 7,000 were actually homeless. Unfortunately in 2015 we expect to exceed that number. 60% that call are families with children.

The changes we have made enable us to deal better with unsheltered homelessness. The centralized intake process is working. Instead of homeless having to knock on 15 to 20 doors, there is only one door to accessing services.

Over the last 20 years Pierce County has devoted a lot of resources to homeless families. We find that families with children are very resilient. Because they have children they are extremely motivated to resolve their homeless crisis. Few families with children become chronically homeless. About 1/3 of homeless families will resolve their homeless crisis on their own. The rest need only a very light touch of assistance: a quick infusion of financial assistance lasting 10 to 30 days or rental assistance and support that can go as long as 6 to 9 months.

Because we focus on families and because families are relatively easier to serve in the homeless system, the vast majority of referrals to housing programs are families. It means that we are not referring and serving single adults and households without children to the same degree and in the same manner.

We know that once that population is served in the same manner as families with children, they do not become homeless again. But, they stay homeless longer. Single adults have higher barriers: they have criminal and/or drug backgrounds, may have more evictions, and have more mental health issues. Since the vast majority of chronically homeless are single adults, we worry about morbidity and safety on the streets. We need to make sure that single homeless and families without children are served as well as families with children.

We are revising our programs to use a housing barriers model – how hard it is for a person to get housing on his or her own without our assistance. We also factor in their vulnerability. By using a light touch on those that are more resilient and focusing our resources on those that would not be able to resolve their homeless crisis without our help, we can better assist the whole population of homeless. So, we are investing in programs which we call “Housing First.” The first thing that a homeless person or family needs is housing, which provides the basis for resolving other issues people have that may contribute to that homeless episode.

We are also investigating programs that provide permanent housing first. We are looking at the model from MDC and their colleagues at Catholic Community Services where they connect directly to the shelters to help people move on to permanent housing. Reducing the time people spend in shelters is critical to resolving the homeless crisis, because shelter is not housing, it is respite. We have to invest in permanent housing to solve the homeless crisis. By emphasizing “housing first” we can help the less resilient.

Troy Christiansen added information about funding streams. As a result of the Affordable Care Act and Washington State’s expansion of Medicaid, almost all Washington residents are eligible for Medicaid, which is health insurance paying for a variety of services. But there is an additional component of Medicaid called The Global Medicaid Waver 1115.

This is a proposed demonstration project in Washington State in which Medicaid would be billable for supportive services provided to individuals in housing programs. It would allow federal Medicaid dollars to be used for those supportive services. Right now the only way to provide those services is to get specific grants that require ongoing renewals or to have significant donations.

Another source of funding is the 1/10th of 1 percent sales tax, which would provide housing and services to people who have a diagnosable mental health or chemical dependency issue. The City Council of Tacoma passed the tax unanimously; Pierce County Council has not put it to a vote, but has called for a study of mental health in Pierce County to assisting them in making a decision. Pierce County is the only urban county in Washington State that has not passed this tax and is the only county on the I-5 corridor that hasn’t passed it. There is an additional 1/10th of 1 percent tax for mental health and chemical dependency facilities that could be used to house people with mental health and chemical dependency issues. These two taxes would aid the chronically homeless, who by and large suffer from mental health and/or chemical dependency issues. We need these kinds of funds to get us to functional zero in the larger population.

Colin DeForrest joined the City of Tacoma six years ago. His first assignment was to locate and get rid of the homeless encampments. The City didn’t even know how many homeless encampments there were. He put on his hiking boots and went into the woods. He was amazed and heartbroken at what he found in the woods, behind buildings and in buildings, in cars and under cars. He wanted to connect the people he found to services that could help them.

Anyone who lives in Tacoma and anybody who goes downtown is wondering what about Tacoma Avenue and what about the library, what about all those individuals that I am seeing who are sleeping out there and hanging out there during the day. What are we doing right now about those individuals?

There were 176 homeless encampments in 2013. By working hard we reduced that number to 86 in 2014. An encampment is basically a campsite. This year we are down to 73. The hardest thing is to tell the people that they can’t be there. And we tell them about the services available. They typically respond that they get turned away at the shelter, because there is no room or because they are a sex offender or so mentally ill they can’t do a shelter. So, the result is that the same people that were in the homeless encampments are now on the streets.

When you hear the question “Where do I go?” it is heartbreaking. The following example tells the story.

There is some kind person who is building tiny rickshaw-like homes on wheels and providing them to homeless. We found one on some Washington State Department of Transportation property. Representatives of DOT arrived and announced they were clearing the area and that the rickshaw had to go. They contacted the City and said they were going to destroy it. I went down there and, when I got there, I saw a guy looking at it. I could tell it was his and I said we could just put it off to the roadside. He said I can’t do it right now; I got to go. But they are going to destroy it, I said a bit frustrated, if you don’t move it. I can’t right now; I start work in a half hour, I got to go to work. — That’s real; that’s what’s going on out there. A guy working 9 to 5 living in a mobile house underneath a bridge.

The City is relentless in trying to crack the nut of visible street homelessness. And you cannot get a shelter for an individual. Shelters are not the answer; warehousing is not the answer. But they are necessary. One of our family shelters right now is turning away between 50 and 70 a day. Another is turning away upwards of 45. Catholic Community Services’ Nativity House is turning away on average 80 a day. The Tacoma Rescue Mission is turning away 30. There is duplication in the phone calls and visits, but the magnitude of the problem is clear.

Another thing that is real is that severe weather is coming and that is when people start dying. The City’s goal is that anybody who is outside and sleeping outside and needs shelter should have the opportunity to get that shelter. How are we going to get there? We meet with our shelter providers and we will be trying hard with everyone’s help to figure it out real quick.

Learn More

Here is a link to an earlier Pierce Progress article on Bob Sadler’s photographs of single homeless men.

Here is a link to our article about homelessness in Graham.

Here is a link to a story from the Smithsonian Magazine about the Homeless in Seattle project.

Addressing homelessness through stories.

Listen to a Move to Tacoma podcast on homelessness.

An example of the Metropolitan Development Council's work.

Get Involved

Here is last year’s page for volunteering to administer the survey and distribute food, clothing and other household items.

Is a tent city an alternative solution for Tacoma?

Looking at the broader context, foreclosure and eviction feed homelessness.

Using the law to help the homeless.