Homelessness in Pierce County is on the rise, according to the results of an annual survey released Friday.
Surveyors who fanned out across the county Jan. 29 counted 1,762 homeless people. That figure included people who slept in emergency shelters, transitional housing, on the street, cars, abandoned buildings or places not meant for human habitation.
That’s an increase of 479 people from 2015, and the highest count since 2012.
“My takeaway from this is that homelessness is definitely increasing. It is, in my opinion, a crisis in our community,” said Tess Colby, housing, homelessness and community development manager for Pierce County Community Connections.
At a news conference Friday, county officials cited the rising numbers of homeless to push for a countywide 0.1 percent sales tax increase to support mental health and chemical dependency programs.
“We’ve stymied ourselves. We’ve created the problem we’re trying to solve right now,” Pierce County Councilman Rick Talbert, D-Tacoma, said.
The point-in-time survey is a snapshot of the region’s homeless population taken on one day. It is not meant provide a comprehensive count of every homeless person. The information is used to prioritize services among homeless individuals with the goal of getting them into permanent housing.
1,762 people who slept inside or outside, in emergency shelters, transitional housing, or other places not meant for “human habitation.”
Colby said year-over-year comparisons can be tricky because factors like weather and the number of volunteers affect the data collected.
One reason for this year’s jump was the 224 volunteers who helped take the count, more than twice the number that participated in 2015. They collected 55 percent more surveys.
Volunteers help most with the surveys of homeless people who are unsheltered, which account for more than a fourth of the total count.
“The number of people sleeping outside is really high,” Colby said from a dormitory of the Nativity House in Tacoma, which served as a backdrop for the release of the survey.
The number of sheltered individuals also was up, a fact the survey attributed in part to the increase of winter emergency shelter beds the city of Tacoma funded between November and this month.
My takeaway from this is that homelessness is definitely increasing. It is, in my opinion, a crisis in our community.
Tess Colby, housing, homelessness and community development manager for Pierce County Community Connections.
“This point-in-time data is sobering and it just affirms Pierce County is in a state of crisis,” Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy said.
McCarthy wants to see the sales tax increase implemented. It would give the county more money to support programs aimed at helping people with mental health and chemical dependency needs, many of whom are homeless, she said.
“I’m not here to chastise, but I’m here to say ‘Let’s utilize this tool,’ ” McCarthy said.
The Pierce County Council has spent a decade “avoiding” the growing homeless problem by refusing to approve the tax increase, Talbert said.
“It’s time for us to do our jobs and take advantage of this one resource we have,” he said.
The county hasn’t turned a blind eye to the problem, Council Chairman Doug Richardson, R-Lakewood, said at the news conference.
He cited partnerships the county has with Tacoma and Puyallup and a combined $600,000 it earmarked to pay for projects in those areas aimed at homeless youth.
We’ve stymied ourselves. We’ve created the problem we’re trying to solve right now.
Pierce County Councilman Rick Talbert, D-Tacoma
The council also dedicated money last year to pay for a study to identify gaps in mental health programming and services in the county, Richardson said. Due in September, the study is expected to include a plan for where to spend the money should the county adopt the tax.
The city of Tacoma already collects the 0.1 percent tax, which amounts to roughly $9.5 million over two years, Mayor Marilyn Strickland said. The money is used for social services, but even with that there still are too many people in need, she said.
Other details from the 2016 survey included:
▪ 80 percent of people surveyed reported their last permanent address was in Pierce County
▪ 13 percent of people were from other counties in Washington
▪ 31 percent of people surveyed self-reported a mental health issue
▪ 17 percent of people self-reported substance abuse
▪ 54 percent of people surveyed were male
▪ 43 percent of people surveyed were female
▪ Almost 60 percent of people surveyed identified as nonwhite
▪ 190 people counted were veterans
▪ 28 percent of the people surveyed reported domestic violence as a contributor to their homelessness.