Matt Driscoll

What will it take to prompt Tacoma’s faith-based groups to help the city battle homelessness?

The idea — an admirable one — was to make it easier for religious organizations and nonprofits to host homeless shelters in Tacoma.

It came in the form of an ordinance passed by the city council last month, modifying the interim regulations created under the city’s emergency declaration on homelessness. Ask most homeless advocates, who’ve long argued that the city’s regulations governing the creation of temporary shelters all but prevents them, and they’ll tell you it was a long time coming.

So far, however, the changes haven’t had the desired impact. Yes, Tacoma now has friendlier rules and an expressed intent of increasing the number of shelter beds — at least temporarily — but one thing has remained unfortunately constant.

No religious organizations or nonprofits have opened a shelter site.

In fact, according to Brian Boudet, Tacoma’s planning and development services manager, no church or other nonprofit has even applied for a permit to do so.

This lack of activity smacks of an opportunity being squandered, and a plan that, at least presently, appears half baked at best. I mean, Tacoma is in the midst of a homeless emergency, right?

That’s just it. Mostly, the situation raises questions.

Has the city done enough if it really wants nonprofits and religious organizations to step up and host temporary shelters? And, if we conclude there’s more to be done, what’s taking so long?

On the flip side, are Tacoma’s faith communities really ready to step up? Like, less talk, more action?

It’s important to keep in mind that it’s only been a few weeks since the ordinance was passed. Things could change. If we’re lucky, they will.

Boudet and Tiegan Tidball Bradbury, a systems analyst for the city who has been working with local faith based organizations to help encourage participation, remain hopeful.

The same goes for Associated Ministries Executive Director Michael Yoder, whose organization has been working with the city to help get the word out. While Yoder acknowledges that last month’s ordinance didn’t open the floodgates of churches lining up to host emergency shelters, he believes there’s legitimate interest from the faith community and a growing realization that churches can be part of the solution to Tacoma’s homelessness crisis.

“We’re sensing faith communities are ready to step up,” Yoder says. “So, what’s the city really going to be willing to do to help a church do that?”

The answer starts with more.

Councilman Keith Blocker of Hilltop championed the effort to make it easier for churches and nonprofits to host temporary shelters. It wasn’t especially contentious, given the ongoing citywide crisis and the fact that the city-operated transition site in the Dome District has been at or near capacity since it opened.

But Blocker is also blunt about the work that remains.

“I think it’s great that we’ve made it easier (to open a temporary shelter site), but we might have to do some serious community engagement and figure out in a practical way how this could work for organizations or communities that want to step up to address homelessness,” he said.

That’s true, and the councilman is right to suggest the city’s work is far from done. To truly empower faith-based organizations and nonprofits to host homeless shelters, it almost certainly will take more than one ordinance and a few regulatory tweaks.

It’s going to take city outreach and the sharing of expertise. It’s going to take resources to help good intentions take shape.It’s probably going to require at least small amount of financial backing to help churches that aren’t rolling in extra money afford the additional expenses.

There’s also reason to believe that committing to it will pay off, which is why it’s unfortunate to see an effort that feels underdeveloped.

Specifically, churches have two valuable and underutilized resources: space and potential volunteers. Both could play a major role in helping to make sure people who want a warm place to sleep at night have access to one.

As a small example of what’s possible, Yoder pointed to an effort last year that saw the city, the Tacoma Rescue Mission, and local churches partner during the cold winter months to expand the city’s available shelter space.

It was a baby step, sure, but it was also indicative of what’s possible when the city works creatively to help solve a complex problem.

Most of all, it demonstrated what can happen when City Hall dedicates the time, backing and resources to help make it more feasible for organizations in our community to play their own part.

Because, really, that’s where we’re at with all this.

As a city, Tacoma can certainly do more to help those experiencing homelessness get off the street.

But it’s not a problem that can be solved by the City Council alone. It’s going to take the entire community, and faith-based organizations are in position to play a crucial role.

For them, it’s time to let actions speak louder than words. Mission statements only go so far.

“There needs to be a growing tide of awareness, that this is a place where … we need you, faith communities,” Yoder says. “Are we going to respond when the community calls us?”

Let’s pray they do.

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