None of the numbers was particularly good. But one, in particular, stood out.
The 37 percent increase over last year in the number of homeless individuals recorded by Pierce County’s annual Point-In-Time count was numerical proof of a worsening crisis we’ve all seen with our own eyes. So too was the 46 percent increase in unsheltered homelessness.
The number that seemed to leave local leaders particularly anguished and searching for answers, however, was found at the bottom of a chart on the third page of a report filled with charts.
Persons fleeing domestic violence: 487.
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That’s almost exactly double the number of people who described domestic violence as their reason for homelessness last year, when 244 people indicated as much.
“That’s a disturbing trend,” Tess Colby, the housing, community development and homeless program manager for Pierce County Community Connections, said gravely.
“That one really jumped out at me,” Pierce County Councilman Derek Young added in a separate interview.
That’s a disturbing trend.
Tess Colby, the housing, community development and homeless program manager for Pierce County Community Connections
So what do we make of the troubling number?
“I do think we’re seeing more people who are fleeing domestic violence,” Colby told me.
Call it an understatement.
During the 2016 Point-In-Time count, which was conducted in January and — as it does every year in Pierce County — required individuals to agree to participate in a survey to be counted, 358 people in shelter and 129 people without shelter indicated that their homelessness was a result of fleeing from domestic violence.
And those are just the people who were willing to acknowledge the details of their plight when interviewed by a volunteer. Like almost every number included in the Point-In-Time count, it’s surely a low-ball figure.
The finding is not an anomaly, according to Karin White, deputy director of the YWCA of Pierce County, which opened the first domestic violence shelter in the state 40 years ago and continues that mission in Tacoma to this day.
White told me that “for many years” the YWCA averaged about 200 calls a month to the crisis line that were turned away — basically, the number of individuals and families the YWCA didn’t have the capacity to serve, while acknowledging some of the calls may have come from the same people.
In the 2015 calendar year, White said, that number increased to an average of 364 turned away every month. She also said the YWCA has seen a noticeable increase in the number of people walking in looking for domestic violence-related services.
“It’s not just the numbers. It’s the intensity of the crises,” White added. “The intensity ... is so much more in the last couple years than I’ve ever seen it before, since I’ve been doing this type of work.”
On a statewide level, White described a similar trend. The number of total crisis line calls, domestic violence shelter bed nights and unmet requests have all increased significantly since 2010, she said.
Interpreting what all of this means, however, isn’t easy. The most obvious explanation would be a general increase in the rate of domestic violence incidents, but White doesn’t believe that’s the case.
Instead, she pointed to many of the same shortsighted funding decisions that have likely helped create the homelessness crisis in general — including funding cuts at the federal and state level to mental health and chemical dependency services dating back to the Great Recession, from which many states, including Washington, have yet to recover.
What we are seeing, I think, is the trickle down from the systemic dismantling of our mental health and chemical dependency systems. I think that has finally caught up to us in real life situations.
Karin White, deputy director of the YWCA of Pierce County
“What we are seeing, I think, is the trickle down from the systemic dismantling of our mental health and chemical dependency systems. I think that has finally caught up to us in real life situations,” White said. “This was a long time coming.”
Add an economic landscape that’s increasingly inhospitable for large portions of the low-income population, and you’ve got a recipe for exactly what we’re seeing.
“I don’t necessarily think there’s more domestic violence. I think that people find other ways to get away from domestic violence when they have economic recourse to do so,” White continued.
Right now, she says, many people simply don’t — so they’re forced to grasp for help.
Unfortunately, as this year’s homeless count illustrates, it’s help that’s not always there.