Homelessness is not just a “Tacoma problem,” John Oldham said.
Oldham double-checked the supplies in the back of his truck parked outside the Gig Harbor Skate Park near the civic center. A founder and member of the board of directors for Peninsula Communities of Faith, a nonprofit that brings together volunteers from church and service groups, he was getting ready for a day on the road, driving between volunteers posted at different points in Gig Harbor and on the Key Peninsula to help conduct the annual Pierce County homeless survey.
The census, in its 17th year, collects census data on homeless populations, or those at risk of becoming homeless, around the county. Volunteers often hand out supplies, like those Oldham provided, including clothes, blankets and toiletries.
Peninsula Communities of Faith sponsored a group to collect data last Thursday, with supplies donated from Gig Harbor city employees.
Oldham, a Gig Harbor resident and retired banker, said one of the biggest problems with addressing homelessness on the west side of the Narrows is the perception that it doesn’t exist.
“In Gig Harbor, people don’t even know we have homeless people,” Oldham said.
He said a common belief is that homelessness is a problem relegated to urban areas like Tacoma. But many of the people Oldham has met through his organization and through the survey tell him they don’t want to risk living on the street in Tacoma.
“They think they’ll get hurt or killed,” Oldham said. “So they stay here. They’d rather take their chances and live out in the woods.”
Oldham said many of the services that homeless people can use are located across the bridges. The homeless survey is largely used to apportion the money that Pierce County receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for social programs, between $2.5 million and $3 million each year.
Because the homeless population on the peninsulas has been relatively unknown, most of the federal money traditionally has gone toward services in Tacoma and its surrounding area.
That’s what Oldham hopes his volunteers can start to change.
Three years ago, Oldham was attending mass at his parish, St. Nicholas Catholic Church. A homeless woman had joined the congregation for the service, and parishioners struggled for ways to help her.
They pooled a collection for a motel room for the night, but Oldham realized the problem would take a much larger solution.
“It got me thinking: When things like this happen, do we have a plan?” he said.
He met with state and local officials, leaders of service organizations and other members of interested groups of faith. Peninsula Communities of Faith was formed as an umbrella organization for different outreach efforts, including the Food Backpacks 4 Kids program, which provides weekend food to students from low-income families.
Oldham took the lead on the Peninsula Homeless Initiative, which organizes the survey and provides immediate and long-term support for people and groups in need of food, shelter or other services.
Key Peninsula Community Services is one of the organizations that works closely with Peninsula Communities of Faith, and it had volunteers stationed at its food bank on Thursday to assist with the survey.
KPCS provides food and senior services year-round, but executive director Penny Gazabat said the peninsula could still use more resources to help its underserved population. She hopes conducting the survey each year will gradually help with that effort.
Another part of the survey comes from the conversations it generates between volunteers and the people they are trying to serve, Gazabat said. She added the response from the homeless people she’s seen has been mostly positive.
“Some of them are a little apprehensive about talking, because they think there will be consequences,” Gazabat said.
But once the conversations take place, volunteers get a better understanding of what services are most needed, she added.
Surveyors fill out large forms after each conversation, detailing where the person they spoke to slept the previous night, how many people are in their family, what sources of income they might have, plus any disabilities or other issues they may be facing. The information, and its ability to better direct services, is the silver lining from what can be a frustrating practice, Oldham said.
This year’s survey only located 13 people in Gig Harbor and on the Key Peninsula, a drop from the 20 surveyed last year and the 60 the previous year. In 2012, volunteers spoke with 15 people in Gig Harbor; this year, that number dropped to one.
“It wasn’t what we wanted,” Oldham said. “But that’s how it goes if you take a snapshot of one day.”
He said the Gig Harbor Peninsula FISH Food Bank counts 142 local homeless people in their own database, and he knew going into the survey that difficulties of transportation, distance and timing would make it possible to only reach a fraction of that number.
Volunteers were posted in places widespread as the skate park in Gig Harbor to sites in Longbranch and Home.
The one-on-one conversations that volunteers conduct also make Oldham’s group’s process harder. King County counted more than 2,200 people in its survey, he said, but in a process that included more than 900 volunteers who took tallies as opposed to filling out informational sheets.
Oldham’s leftover clothing items will be distributed through Peninsula Communities of Faith’s network during the next few weeks. There are new services coming as well, including a Thursday night clinic at KPCS, starting on Feb. 21, to provide medical care regardless of insurance or felony records.
“There are a lot of things we can do around here to help the homeless,” Oldham said.
The trick will be building awareness, both for the county and for the general population that can overlook the issue, he added. Oldham hopes it’s the slow beginning of the process that will make peninsula homelessness less of an unknown.
That’s what brought Jerry DeLong, a retired shipyard worker from Puyallup, to the empty skate park Thursday morning to take his surveyor post. He said he had been looking for volunteer opportunities, and his wife had alerted him to Peninsula Communities of Faith’s outreach effort. He told a friend before he left where he was going.
“She said, ‘Gig Harbor? They wouldn’t have homeless in Gig Harbor!’ ” DeLong recalled. “And before I got involved in this, I’d never really thought about it either. But somebody needs to step in and do what they can to help.”
Reporter Will Livesley-O’Neill can be reached at 253-358-4152 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @gateway_will.
Survey attempts to shed light on homelessness
Homelessness is not just a “Tacoma problem,” John Oldham said. Oldham double-checked the supplies in the back of his truck parked outside the Gig Harbor Skate Park near the civic center. A founder and member of the board of directors for Peninsula Communities of Faith, a nonprofit that brings together volunteers from church and service groups, he was getting ready for a day on the road, driving between volunteers posted at different points in Gig Harbor and on the Key Peninsula to help conduct the annual Pierce County homeless survey.
Homelessness is not just a “Tacoma problem,” John Oldham said.