Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Let’s talk about homelessness in Tacoma, and then do something about it

Staff photographer

Ask Elizabeth Burris about homelessness in Tacoma, and she’ll tell you the problem is getting worse.

And she’s not alone.

Burris, the chairwoman of the New Tacoma Neighborhood Council, lives downtown at South 15th Street and Tacoma Avenue. She’s been there since 2007, which means she has a closer perspective than most when it comes to seeing homelessness firsthand.

From her home, Burris says, she sees the evidence: people sleeping on the street and in doorways, a growing number of makeshift shelters, belongings strewn in the bushes.

“This year, this whole thing has just gotten way out of hand, as far as what’s going on with encampments,” Burris told me over coffee last week. “In the last year it’s just gotten really bad, especially down on Tacoma Avenue.”

If there is an epicenter in the struggle, Tacoma Avenue is probably it. And if we’re judging Tacoma’s homelessness problem by whether or not this area appears to be more afflicted, then, recently, it certainly has gotten worse.

That’s one of the reasons that Burris and the New Tacoma Neighborhood Council have scheduled a forum on homeless encampments this week, Wednesday night at the University of Washington Tacoma’s Carwein Auditorium.

“It just seems like we need to get together, not for people just to tell their stories and vent, but to actually think about solutions,” Burris explained of the motives behind the forum. She hopes people will come away from the event with a better understanding of the resources that are available, as well as how city laws apply.

But, more than anything, Burris hopes to see a “coalition” of community members form to push for change, including more action on mental health and chemical dependency from Pierce County. Tacoma is a hub for social services, meaning, as a city, we end up bearing the brunt of county’s refusal to adopt a mental health sales tax that would help pay for services.

Among others, Wednesday’ night’s panel will include Colin DeForrest, the city’s homeless service manager, and Troy Christensen, the Metropolitan Development Council’s chief of operations and strategy.

It promises to be a worthwhile event. You should attend. I will.

But here’s one spoiler: According to those who deal with it on a daily basis, the problem of homelessness in Tacoma isn’t getting worse. It’s just more visible.

In fact, by the only real method we have to quantify it, street homelessness in Tacoma — meaning the number of people sleeping outside, without shelter — has decreased significantly over the last decade.

As Christensen told me, back in 2005 the annual Point-In-Time count of those experiencing homelessness identified 727 people living without shelter — outside, in a car or in an abandoned building. This year that number was 191 individuals, representing a 74 percent decrease over where Tacoma was 10 years ago.

Christensen attributes this reduction to the creation of roughly 400 new units of housing during this time, and the 2006 implementation of a “housing first” model of service in Tacoma that aims to get those experiencing homelessness into stable housing as quickly as possible and then work to address other needs for services, such as mental health or chemical dependency.

None of this, of course, is meant to discredit the concerns of citizens alarmed by the sight of more homeless people on our streets. It does look like the problem is getting worse. And people should be alarmed.

The real questions, however, are:

Why does it feel like homelessness is on the rise?

And, more importantly, what can we do as a community to help?

According to DeForrest and Tacoma Human Services Manager Pamela Duncan, the answer to the first question likely has to do with the work the city is doing to clean up homeless encampments in unseen parts of our city. For example, DeForrest says his department recently spent 40 days cleaning up encampments in the wooded areas between Schuster Parkway and the Stadium District.

Citywide, there have been many similar efforts, and they’ve been successful, meaning the encampments are gone, and the homelessness that was once hidden is being forced into the open. “Really, it’s almost like we’ve pulled the curtain up on homelessness in Tacoma,” DeForrest explains of the effort and its impact.

If this visible increase in homelessness provides the impetus to help solve the problem, then perhaps that’s a good thing. And perhaps it will lead us to the answer to the second, far more difficult, question.

As Christensen sees it, getting at the root of the issue will come down to our community’s will to work on the problem. That’s going to require more than focusing on the sight of more encampments.

“We could, as a community, decide we’re simply not going to tolerate (homelessness), and do whatever is necessary to end it,” Christensen says.

Talking is good.

But, unfortunately, the next step — coordinated action and the allocation of more resources — is the hard part.

What: New Tacoma Council Homeless Encampment Forum.

When: Wednesday, Sept. 9, 5:30 - 7 p.m.

Where: University of Washington Tacoma, Carwein Auditorium, 1754 Commerce St., Tacoma.