Pierce leaders must show guts, declare homeless crisis

A local homeless man rolls up his sleeping bag while breaking down his tent site at a camp under the Interstate 705 overpass closed by city and state officials in Tacoma last year.
A local homeless man rolls up his sleeping bag while breaking down his tent site at a camp under the Interstate 705 overpass closed by city and state officials in Tacoma last year. News Tribune file photo, 2017

For many of us, homeless people are the occasional unfortunates begging at a stoplight or sprawled in tent camps under a bridge. They like it there, we understand, because they prefer the outdoor life or because they are doing drugs, are mentally unhinged, or both.

One thing we know for certain: They are not like us. They are not “our” homeless. These ragged people are from out of town. Giving them free stuff — like food and shelter — will just attract more.

Our Tacoma-Pierce County League of Women Voters found a different reality. Joined by several local organizations, our months-long exploration found a homeless crisis far bigger and far different from the myths.

The first reality: They are us. The numbers astonish; last year more than 10,000 of our neighbors in Pierce County became homeless. Another 5,000-plus homeless kids attend, or try to attend, local schools.

More than half of those sleeping in their car or a tent still have a job. Their morning commute includes finding a place to shower and eat.

The chronic homeless — the folks sleeping under the bridge or in the alley? Fewer than a tenth of the total. Those with substance or behavior problems number less than a fifth.

The vast majority are like you and me, average folks willing to work hard, eager for their kids to have a better life.

Why are so many average folks homeless? Because these days, average means barely making enough to pay the rent and buy groceries. Average has high deductible health care (or no care at all), an older car and no money in the savings account.

When life happens — car breaks down, kid gets sick, hours on the second job get cut — there is nothing left to pay the rent. Suddenly, average family is on the street.

Most homeless bounce back. With a bit of help, 80 percent pull themselves back up for good – “one and done,” not homeless again.

Hundreds of good-hearted individuals deliver that help from many dozens of local community and church organizations. They register the newly homeless and hunt for immediate housing. They expertly help the chronically homeless move into long-term counseling, find bus passes so the employed can get to work, make sure the kids are eating at school and keeping up with their studies.

Miracle workers as they are, our corps of helpers is too small and underfunded. With more than 15,000 homeless last year and the numbers climbing, we have an emergency.

The League of Women Voters and our coalition partners have asked, unsuccessfully so far, for the county executive and the County Council to declare an emergency, following Tacoma’s 2017 example.

Many political leaders around the county appear to hope the problem will go away. It won’t. All signs point to even higher numbers ahead.

What can we do? First, recognize these are our neighbors, that this is our crisis. Second, keep working on affordable housing. We need housing that fits the budgets of regular working folks. But third, understand we can’t build our way out this emergency.

We must move upstream, to prevention. We must find ways to help people in crisis stabilize themselves before they have to leave their homes.

As we’ve been freshly reminded by the family separation crisis at America’s southern border, it is crucial to avoid life-damaging trauma to children. With a declaration of emergency and creative planning, this community can rise to the challenge.

We’ll still need to work with the chronically homeless, and mobilize help for everyone who does fall into homelessness. But we can do more to head off the catastrophe for thousands of our neighbors who will go to bed tonight wondering if they’ll be evicted tomorrow.

Please join us in this effort.

Cynthia Stewart, a former public sector senior manager, is president of the Tacoma-Pierce County League of Women Voters. Reach her at stewdahl@comcast.net. Larry Seaquist, a former state representative (D-Gig Harbor), is a member of the League. Reach him at larryseaquist@comcast.net.