Ending Homelessness in Pierce County
The Key Peninsula unites to end homelessness
By Rachel Kelly
Your landlord went bankrupt and didn’t tell you. The only reason you found out is because you were served an eviction notice, and you have to be out by the end of the week. Already on the brink of your funds, you need time to save up for a deposit for a new place. With rent being high in the area, you also need time to find a new roommate. You pack your things into the car and find yourself in the shelter for the night. You place all your important belongings into a locker (keys, phone and wallet …) and hop in the shower. When you get out you discover that someone has broken the lock and taken off with your stuff. By the time you get a hold of the bank, using someone else’s cell phone the next morning, half your income is gone. Just like that, what would have been a couple of weeks on and off the streets has become several months. You’re homeless. An easy hole to fall in, but a hard one to dig out of.
Homelessness can be a long journey coupled with a feeling of invisibility. Getting out is an uphill battle against prejudice, poverty, abuse and loneliness. Pierce County, however, is determined to make progress toward health, and sustainable living. By the end of 2021, Pierce County’s goal is to end homelessness.
The first order of business in combating homelessness in the area is to understand the structures and situations that contribute to it. To provide this much-needed information, Pierce County has developed the “point-in-time” count. The point-in-time count is “a one-day snapshot that captures the characteristics and situations of people living here without a home.” In other words, Pierce County workers are not attempting to solve homelessness from an office. They are actually getting up and getting out to count and converse with the homeless in our community.
The most recent point-in-time count surveys the situations of 1,897 people experiencing homelessness. Of those 1,897, 47 percent have at least one source of income. Twenty-two percent are chronically homeless, 36 percent female, 6 percent are unaccompanied youth, 8 percent are veterans, and 16 percent are adult survivors of domestic violence. Also, even though people of color make up only 27 percent of our population, they make up 47 percent of our people experiencing homelessness. Surprisingly, not everyone sleeps outside. Forty-six percent sleep in shelters, with 31 percent in a car or abandoned building and 9 percent in transitional housing. Seventeen percent live in a tent or on the street. Contrary to popular knowledge, the majority of people experiencing homelessness lived in Pierce County before becoming homeless, with the rest of the majority living within Washington. Only 6 percent surveyed lived outside of Washington before becoming homeless; meaning that homelessness is our problem, in our community, rather than a far-off problem meant to be solved elsewhere.
In 2019, Gig Harbor and the greater Key Peninsula participated in the point-in-time count for the first time. Previously, the number for people experiencing homelessness in the Key Peninsula was 1.5, which is far from accurate. Nine volunteers stepped up to survey the homeless in our community, and found 49 people experiencing homelessness. Of those 49, 24 were in Gig Harbor. While the PIT count fluctuates, and in 2020 in-person counts were severely restricted, having a general understanding of homelessness is intrinsically valuable. The results of the Key Peninsula PIT echo those that are mirrored in the larger Pierce County, but it is also invaluable for bringing Gig Harbor into the conversation. We have people who need help here too. Our voice is part of the solution.
To address these issues, Pierce County has formed a coalition made up of more than 200 members. The Tacoma Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness is further subdivided into 13 action committees that are meant to address issues head-on. The committees establish housing, steering (support), safe encampments and employment opportunities. Essentially, the coalition is a team made up of faith-based organizations, nonprofits and city resources (including the police department and social services). “We feel that any communication between nonprofits, government representatives and community leaders is positive,” says Daniel Johnson of Harbor Hope Center. The Harbor Hope Center helps teens who are experiencing homelessness here in our community, but they are also actively involved in the dangers of Fentanyl that specifically affect our area. Harbor Hope Center continues to increase their involvement with drug counselors as a result. On-the-ground firsthand knowledge, such as what Harbor Hope Center offers, is exactly why the Coalition to End Homelessness was formed. No one understands the challenges that our communities face more than those that experience it and see it.
The issue may be vast, but the resources are broad. What’s more, now these resources are unified, accessible, and ready to go. Ending homelessness has gone from being a lofty ideal to being a real goal. Together with Pierce County, the Key Peninsula can bring an end to homelessness.