Construction begins in Lakewood

New housing complex to help homeless families

A local nonprofit is kicking off construction of its first multi-unit permanent housing complex in Lakewood in the hopes of doing more for families who are homeless or on the verge. Twenty-five years ago, a group of Pierce County ministers formed Living Access Support Alliance to provide financial aid for individuals who needed help paying utility costs. Since then the program has expanded to provide housing for families before they end up on the streets as well as offering financial assistance for utility bills, prescriptions and bus tickets.

Now LASA is partnering with Tacoma Housing Authority to build a 15-unit permanent housing complex on Gravelly Lake Drive to help prevent recurring homelessness, said Executive Director Janne Hutchins. The agency plans to break ground on the project at an event Wednesday (Sept. 3).

LASA currently owns two single-family homes that offer permanent housing, but Prairie Oaks will be its largest permanent housing option exclusively for families that have a member who is disabled.

“The idea was to have not only the housing but expanded prevention service,” Hutchins said. “A few years ago, you never saw someone in this part of the country walking around with a shopping cart and now you do every day.”

The latest homeless survey compiled by the Department of Commerce estimated Washington has 7,062 people belong to homeless families with children, with 636 of them living in Pierce County.

Many more families are living on the edge, and paying a utility bill or missing work to care for a sick child can be enough to push them over, Hutchins said.

The Prairie Oaks complex on an acre of land on Gravelly Lake Drive in Lakewood will include a playground and a service center equipped with meeting rooms, computers, laundry, a shower and a book nook for children.

The service center is intended to provide services for not only the Prairie Oaks residents but other locals currently struggling with homelessness, Hutchins said.

Hutchins said LASA secured roughly $4.6 million - primarily from the Washington Housing Trust Fund - for the Prairie Oaks complex and $1.2 million for the service center. It has launched a capital campaign for an additional $250,000 needed for the service center.

Hutchins said LASA is leaving part of the land undeveloped to make room for future expansion.

“I predict that we’ll have a slow start and then within a year, we’ll outgrow it,” Hutchins said.

Kelli Kaler, a LASA client, is hoping to be one of Prairie Oaks’ tenants. She became homeless after her eight-year marriage ended and she started using drugs.

The divorce “was a major blow,” Kaler said. “I was separated and on my own and stressed. ... I came clean and for my honesty, I got help.”

Kaler checked into a rehabilitation facility in Olympia and later moved to The Rescue Mission in Tacoma where she lived for 3 1/2 months.

Now, she lives with her 7-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son in a three-bedroom townhouse she found with help from LASA. She pays $75 a month, but the subsidy is good for only two years.

Kaler, who has the chronic autoimmune disease lupus, has been unable to work since 2006 because of her disability. She said she isn’t sure where she will live if she can’t get into permanent housing.

“Homelessness is a scary thing,” she said.

The Prairie Oaks complex, scheduled to be complete by March, was made possible by LASA’s partnership with the Tacoma Housing Authority, which had the expertise necessary to guide it through pre-development and construction. It’s the first project for which THA has provided real estate development services, said THA Executive Director Michael Mirra.

LASA is also partnering with Pierce County Housing Authority, which will provide Section 8 certificates to help cover the costs of renting each unit.

“This has been a long time coming and has really been a lot of blood, sweat and tears for a lot of people,” Hutchins said.