Matt Driscoll

Without permanent housing, Tacoma's homeless shelter talk is largely wasted breath

An emergency option for Tacoma's homeless

The Tacoma Rescue Mission offers emergency services such as a beds and food.
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The Tacoma Rescue Mission offers emergency services such as a beds and food.

Homeless shelter space in Tacoma is essentially nonexistent..

Just ask the people turned away each night at area shelters or those on the waiting list to get into the city’s Dome District stability site.

So perhaps it’s only natural that the city is spending significant time and energy grappling with how to create more, including making it easier for nonprofits and faith-based organizations to step up and provide emergency shelter beds.

But until we make real strides in identifying and generating more transitional and permanent housing options for those experiencing homelessness, all that time and energy will be an exercise in futility.

The shelters will remain full. Folks moving out of the stability site will be rare. And we'll be left spinning our wheels, putting Band Aids on an ailment that demands a full-blown crisis response.

Data from the annual Point-In-Time homeless count in Pierce County shows that 1628 people were living on the streets or in shelters on a given night in January 2018, an increase of 300 more individuals than last year.

Last June, shortly after Tacoma officials unveiled the city’s three-phase response to the declared homelessness emergency, I wrote that the final phase — creating more short-term transitional and permanent housing options — was going to be the key.

It surely would be the most difficult to pull off.

Ten months later, that forecast has proven unfortunately prophetic. (Before you give me too much credit, I was stating the obvious.)

For the most part, the city has effectively cut down or eliminated the number of large, unauthorized encampments where significant numbers of people often were living in unsafe conditions while neighboring businesses were left to deal with the impacts.

That’s good.

The city also has moved a number of people who'd been living in those camps to the Dome District stability site, improving living conditions and helping to connect people in need to critical services.

Also good.

Where the city’s response has hit a roadblock is in Phase 3: its ability to move people beyond shelter, into safe, stable living conditions.

Currently, 86 individuals call the Dome District stability site home, while 177 individuals have been provided shelter there since its inception. However, 80 people are on the waiting list to get into the stability site. And in the just under nine months it’s been open, only 35 people have actually been moved out into transitional or permanent housing.

In other words, without more housing, we’re in a holding pattern. And to date, the city's efforts to secure additional housing have floundered, including an attempt to turn the former Calico Cat motel into transitional housing.

The reality is this isn’t a problem Tacoma can or should take on alone. Creating the necessary number of permanent housing options for people experiencing homelessness in our area will require a regional response.

So far, such a response has been painfully slow to materialize — to put it mildly.

As if we needed more reminders of this sizable remaining hurdle, a few nonetheless emerged recently.

This week we received the official results from the 2018 Point-in-time homeless count. To no great surprise – thanks to new, expanded counting techniques — the number of people experiencing homelessness across the county was up substantially from 2017.

Last year, a total of 1,321 people were tallied. This year, the number grew to 1,628, including 750 individuals living outdoors, without shelter.

In 2017, the number of unsheltered individuals counted was 504.

Tess Colby is the manager of the Pierce County Human Services Department’s Community Services Division. This week, Colby delivered a PowerPoint presentation to the Pierce County Council, detailing the sobering results of this year’s Point-in-time count.

The culminating note of Colby’s presentation really tells you all you need to know.

“For the most vulnerable to receive the help they need, we need more permanent housing with support services,” it stated. “That’s how we right-size our response.”

Easier said than done? Of course.

It’s also dead on.

And without such a response, the truth is we’re never going to make real progress.

Matt Driscoll: 253-597-8657,, @mattsdriscoll