Most of Tacoma’s homeless adults were once broken kids

Mike Johnson is executive director of The Rescue Mission in Tacoma.
Mike Johnson is executive director of The Rescue Mission in Tacoma.

For over a year, The Rescue Mission has been actively engaging those who are in Tacoma’s encampments, developing relationships, and most importantly listening.

In any given 120-day period, we reach out to more people than were found in the last point-in-time count. We always ask what we can do to help, and here’s what we’ve learned:

Many people camping on the streets have no hope or plan whatsoever. They’re often just barely surviving.

In fact, most have been in survival mode since childhood, because levels of youth trauma predict adult homelessness more accurately than any other measure.

This is why homelessness isn’t just a housing crisis; it’s a personal crisis with housing symptomology.

High levels of childhood abuse and neglect create kids with serious education struggles. They get in more trouble, have lower grades and often don’t complete high school. These kids experiment with drugs and alcohol much earlier than their peers, starting a cycle of problems with the law.

These are not simply people that have chosen to live on the streets. They are the adult children of neglect, abuse and deep personal loss. They’ve given up, and un-giving-up is a heavy lift.

Restoring and reviving hope means much more than simply providing a temporary place of shelter from the streets, though this is an important first step. Here at the Rescue Mission, we know that healing happens holistically — and always in the context of caring, nurturing relationships.

Cities aren’t going to be able to simply house our way out of this crisis; we must heal out way out of it.

Healing happens when someone finally gets the help they need to break the chains of addiction and earn a diploma. It happens when a parent finally gets the help she needs to reunite with her estranged children and other family members. It happens when someone who has experienced trauma is finally able to receive counseling to address serious mental health issues.

All this help is typically within reach of healthier and wealthier families.

Our current shelters work very well for those who use them. They not only provide a temporary place to sleep off the street, but also a place to access resources and make significant life changes. In January alone, nearly 40 of our shelter clients entered permanent housing.

But for the people we all see under tarps and tents who aren’t choosing our traditional approaches to address homelessness, creative new ways of engagement will be required to reach these people without compromising our values, laws and goals.

At The Rescue Mission, we applaud the city’s decision to dive deeper into this need. We believe meaningful improvements can be made, and that the recent emergency declaration is an important first step.

It says that our whole city is being impacted by this crisis, and that our whole community will need to come together in building a complete and permanent pathway out of poverty for every one of our homeless neighbors.

We also hope that Pierce County will address the fact that our current level of inpatient mental health beds is one tenth the national average. Yes, you read that right. Nationally, the average county has ten times the inpatient mental health beds per 100,000 residents than we have in Pierce County.

Truth be told, our mental health system is in its own state of emergency.

Making new efforts stick will require us all — city, county and community — working together to better understand the roots of homelessness and to fill in our system’s missing pieces.

Mike Johnson is executive director of Tacoma Rescue Mission. Reach him by email at mikej@trm.org