“I think it’s bad,” Tess Colby told me from her office building on Tacoma Avenue, two days before the results of this year’s Pierce County Point-In-Time homeless count were made public during a sobering but hardly surprising press conference.
“I don’t know how to make 500 people sleeping outside feel OK.”
As the housing, community development and homeless program manager for Pierce County Community Connections, Colby knows the cold realities of what this year’s Point-In-Time count revealed — and, most of all, what it confirmed.
She knows the January count, the results of which were officially released Friday, found 1,762 people experiencing homelessness — 1,268 in our maxed-out shelters, and 494 sleeping “outside or in places not meant for human habitation.”
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She knows these numbers represent a 37 percent increase over last year in the total number of homeless individuals in Pierce County, and a 46 percent increase in unsheltered homelessness — continuing a troubling trend of increases in unsheltered homelessness over the last several years.
I don’t know how to make 500 people sleeping outside feel OK.
Tess Colby, the Housing, Community Development and Homeless Program manager for Pierce County Community Connections
She knows the number of people considered to be chronically homeless spiked from 213 in 2015, to 420 this year.
She knows that the large majority — roughly 80 percent — reported a last permanent address in Pierce County, proving, as Colby puts it, that “These are our people.”
She knows that homelessness among families increased by 50 percent, and that a full 23 percent of those identified as homeless were under the age of 18 — just over 400 children were identified during the count.
She knows homelessness in Pierce County disproportionately affects minorities, with 60 percent of homeless respondents identifying as non-white — nearly double their share of the county’s total population.
She knows that a staggering 487 respondents indicated that their homelessness was a result of fleeing from domestic violence.
And while this year’s count probably did a better job than previous years’ in painting a complete picture of homelessness throughout the county — the number of volunteers conducting it greatly increased, allowing counters to do “a much better job fanning across the county,” Colby says, — she knows it’s still an undercount.
And it’s a crisis.
Colby has known this year’s grim realities for some time, in fact. On Wednesday, Colby told me people in her office have been discussing this year’s Point-In-Time count “pretty much every day for more than a month.”
But, then again, with or without official numbers, haven’t we all known homelessness — and specifically unsheltered homelessness — has spiked? Haven’t we all seen the increased number of people living along the Puyallup River or camped in RVs and tents along Fawcett Avenue?
It’s awful that we’ve let this crisis get to this point, but it’s also not something that we didn’t already know.
Pierce County Councilman Derek Young
“It’s at the same time shocking, then also not shocking,” Pierce County Councilman Derek Young says of this year’s Point-In-Time results.
“It’s awful that we’ve let this crisis get to this point, but it’s also not something that we didn’t already know.”
So where do we go from here?
“If nothing else, it just tells us we need to act now,” Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland implores.
Unfortunately — and historically — that’s where things get tricky for Pierce County. While the county isn’t alone in seeing an increase in homelessness — in fact, King, Thurston, Snohomish and Kitsap have all seen similar spikes — its inaction on matters of behavioral health and chemical dependency, key contributors to homelessness, have been almost singular in their shortsightedness.
The first half of Friday’s press conference was spent running through the long list of problematic findings from this year’s Point-In-Time count. The second half consisted of county leaders vacillating between acknowledgments of all the important work that’s already being done and attempts to pinpoint what key steps remain.
Which, like it or not, largely brings the discussion to the one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for mental health — the very tax the County Council has been sparring over for what feels like an eternity.
“I’ve been a proponent of the one-tenth of 1 percent (sales tax) for a number of years,” Pat McCarthy told me this week, later pointing out that the county has been very “conservative” in levying taxes, only doing so in the most necessary of situations.
She sees this as just such a situation.
“I don’t believe the (tax) is a silver bullet,” McCarthy continued. “But it’s a contributing factor to help us have the resources to do what we have to do today.”
I don’t believe the (tax) is a silver bullet. But it’s a contributing factor to help us have the resources to do what we have to do today.
Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy
To date, the County Council has yet to pass a mental health sales tax, which will require five votes on a council split four to three in favor of Republicans, who have often argued that funding mental health is the state’s responsibility. This makes Pierce County the only urban county in the state that hasn’t passed such a tax.
Jurisdictional arguments aside, what’s clear is this also makes Pierce County — which, let us not forget, also suffers from a woeful lack of affordable housing options and an economy that’s squeezing people out — ill-prepared to deal with the situation on our streets.
Will the latest Point-In-Time results finally push the county, and, specifically, the Republican majority on the council that’s been averse to the idea into supporting it?
Early indications are, no, at least not alone.
County Council Chairman Doug Richardson believes residents deserve a plan for how the tax money will be spent, and he’s hopeful just such a plan will emerge from the ongoing assessment of the county’s mental health failings. It’s probably a reasonable assertion, and also a frustrating one, because it’s clear failings exist. Findings from that study are expected to start trickling in by summer; they’ll likely be finalized by September.
Maybe then residents of Pierce County will begin to see the response to this crisis they deserve.
Richardson believes addressing homelessness is a priority for the County Council. As evidence, he tells me, “It was the No. 1 issue for every council member” at a recent retreat.
That’s encouraging to hear.
But, it’s worth noting, there is a clear way to start proving it.