Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Winter weather makes getting people off Tacoma’s streets even more important

Cots. Mattresses.

A few feet of space here, and a few feet of space there.

How Tacoma and its homeless service providers will cobble together emergency inclement weather shelter during the coming winter isn’t a complex bureaucratic dance.

In reality, it involves simple, nitty-gritty things like identifying “who can do what,” and “who’s got what” from a community that’s already stretched thin.

Without any additional money, of course.

That’s how Colin DeForrest, Tacoma’s homeless services manager, described the purpose of an informal meeting Tuesday at the new Nativity House on Yakima Avenue. With more than 20 service providers and city employees packed into a small room with a long table, stiff plastic chairs and blank white walls, existing gaps and potential resources were the topic of conversation for close to two hours.

All of it comes with the start of what’s considered the most crucial and challenging time for emergency shelter providers less than a week away.

The inclement weather season runs from November to early March. Historically during this time, our area’s emergency shelter providers open their doors to just about anyone seeking a place to stay on nights when temperatures dip to dangerous levels — even if it means exceeding capacity, a concession that they can afford to make only in emergencies.

The good news is that approach won’t change this year, but the challenge this winter may prove to be greater than ever. While narrowing in on exact figures of how many people are living on Tacoma’s streets remains nearly impossible for a number of reasons, what’s clear is a number of shelter providers are seeing a sharply increased need.

According to DeForrest, around 150 individuals and families are turned away from our emergency shelters every night due to a lack of beds and capacity. This comes amid a noticeable uptick in visible homelessness throughout the city, perhaps nowhere as evident as along Tacoma Avenue.

Anecdotally, city officials attribute this rise in visible homelessness to the work that’s been done to clear out and clean up encampments under freeways and deep in the woods — an effort they say has pushed our homeless population increasingly out into the light.

It’s also possible there are more people experiencing homelessness in Tacoma. The methods we have for calculating such things are imprecise, to put it kindly.

What we do know is local shelters are seeing an uptick.

Nick Leider, the homeless adult services director for Catholic Community Services, which operates Nativity House, says the waitlist at the shelter is considerably longer than it was in 2014, despite the fact that the new facility, opened last December, has 22 more beds.

Last year, the average number of people on the Nativity House waitlist was 34, Leider tells me. So far this year it’s 74.

Over at the Tacoma Rescue Mission, executive director Mike Johnson says the men’s shelter on South Tacoma Way only turns people away for safety reasons — including “obvious impairment, intoxication and unruly behavior.” He says that in August the men’s shelter averaged 131 people per night, “even though we only have 80 bunks.” The rest slept on mats and cots.

Based on last year’s numbers, Johnson expects slightly more than 200 men a night come February.

At the Rescue Mission’s women and families shelter on South Adams Street, Johnson says, there’s capacity for an average of 60 people a night, plus 12 a night in overflow space. Here, he tells me, about 40 people are turned away every day.

“The numbers definitely show an increase” in people seeking shelter, Leider tells me of the experience at Nativity House. He also acknowledges the possibility that factors other than more people on the street might be at play. Perhaps Nativity House’s new facility is attracting more people.

“No. 1, there probably is some increase in the actual need,” Leider said. “And it’s also probable that between the encampment work and the new building that our numbers are more accurately reflecting the need that’s been there.”

Whether the need has increased or we’re just getting a clearer picture of it than ever before, the fact remains that it’s there.

Right now.

What emerged Tuesday from the small, packed meeting room was a plan to move forward this winter. By pulling together, and pulling out all the stops, the Rescue Mission, Nativity House and the Salvation Army family shelter believe they’ll be able to increase capacity by 150 to 200 beds when the weather gets ugly. When they do, it won’t be from anything fancier than sharing resources and packing people into anywhere they’ll fit.

But what also emerged from Tuesday’s meeting was a sobering reminder of the gaps that remain: family shelter beds still are at a premium, individual youth shelter beds are practically nonexistent, at least currently. And if the numbers get any worse, there’s simply no guarantee at this point that Tacoma will have a place for people to go when the weather gets really bad.

“My goal is for anyone — families or individuals — that wants shelter, to get shelter,” DeForrest said of the coldest of nights.

“Can we do this? That’s my challenge.”

As a community, that’s a challenge we all share.

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