The homeless population of Pierce County fell by more than 25 percent during the last year, a new homelessness survey reveals.
But organizers of the annual Point-in-Time count of the homeless think those figures might not accurately reflect the reality on the streets and in the shelters of Pierce County.
“This is not a scientific survey,” said Tess Colby, the county’s manager of housing, homelessness and community development. Factors such as weather, the availability of shelter beds and the timing of the count can affect the totals, she said.
This year’s survey counted 1,321 homeless persons in the county compared with 1,762 last year.
The survey is conducted by volunteers who fan out to homeless campsites, shelters and service providers throughout the county to count the number of people without a home.
This year’s survey was done Jan. 27, a day with fairly good weather.
During good weather, the homeless are more likely to travel to friends, to stores, to social service providers than during inclement weather, Tolby said.
“We had numerous volunteers who said they went to active campsites only to find no or few people there,” she said, adding that, “In bad weather and rainy days, they tend to hunker down.”
Colby said she suspects, based on several years of homeless census results, that the homeless Pierce County population hovers around 1,300 persons. In 2015, the survey counted 1,283 homeless. In 2012, the number was 1,464.
This year’s survey revealed several other telling statistics:
▪ The bulk of Pierce County homeless people don’t live outdoors. The survey showed only 22 percent were camped out or sleeping in the open. Forty-four percent were in emergency shelters, some 18 percent were in transitional housing, and 16 percent were sleeping in cars or abandoned buildings.
▪ Only 7 percent of the homeless contacted during the census said they lived in states other than Washington before they become homeless. Seventy-nine percent were Pierce County residents, and 7 percent were from neighboring King County. The remainder had lived elsewhere in Washington.
▪ The homeless are disproportionately persons of color. The survey showed 41 percent were minorities. Overall, 24 percent of Washington residents are minorities.
▪ Job loss or lack of job skills was the top causes of homelessness, followed by the loss of a living situation or eviction, and family crises or breakups.
▪ Mental illness, not substance abuse, was the most commonly reported disability among Pierce County homeless. Thirty-one percent of those surveyed said they had mental issues compared with 18 percent who reported substance abuse. Physical disabilities (22 percent) and chronic health conditions (19 percent) also were more common than substance abuse.
▪ Demographic data show that men make up the largest share of the homeless (61 percent). Fourteen percent of homeless are families with children. Six percent are unaccompanied youths.
The county’s larger cities predictably were largest source of homeless persons. Tacoma led that list with 313 homeless persons saying the City of Destiny was their last home address. Second on the list was Lakewood with 69 followed by Parkland with 58. Fourth was Puyallup with 24 and fifth University Place with 20.
Homeless persons’ last place of permanent residence wasn’t necessarily an exact reflection of where they seek shelter now. In Puyallup, for instance, Paula Anderson, director of the homeless aid organization New Hope Resource Center, said the center routinely sent 50 or more persons nightly to area churches that provided overnight shelter in Puyallup’s Freezing Nights program. That’s more than twice the number who told surveyors their last residence was in that city.
Anderson likewise said despite the survey’s numbers, she believes the homeless population hasn’t varied greatly year-to-year.