Making sense of up-and-down Pierce County homeless numbers

Michael Yoder, executive director of Associated Ministries.
Michael Yoder, executive director of Associated Ministries.

You may have heard that the number of people experiencing homelessness in Pierce County decreased by 9 percent since last year. Yet from another source you might hear that it went up by 14 percent.

Which figure is accurate? It’s complicated because there is truth behind both statistics.

In early April the results of the 2019 Pierce County Point-in-Time count were released. A total of 1,486 people experiencing homelessness were identified during the PIT count, a decrease of 9 percent compared with the 1,628 individuals identified in the 2018 count. This year’s count was conducted by more than 300 trained volunteers on Jan. 25.

Any announcement of a decrease in homelessness should certainly be good news. It is important, however, to understand what the PIT data actually represents and to get some additional context.

Many factors contribute to fluctuations in totals from year to year, including the number of volunteers participating, the weather on the day of the count and the time of day the volunteers are out in the community.

In actuality, the PIT Count is simply a snapshot of the scope of homelessness on one given night, and there is a more robust and accurate data source.

Over the course of the last 12 months, according to the county’s Homeless Management Information System data, 10,860 people experienced homelessness in Pierce County. That’s a 14 percent increase from the 9,487 who were documented in the HMIS system during the prior 12 months.

HMIS is a locally administered data system, required by federal and state funders, that is used to record and analyze homeless information. Since nearly all publicly funded agencies in Pierce County use this centralized system, it provides the most robust picture of the full scope of homelessness locally.

Having a broader context for understanding such a complicated issue is essential. Why? I’ve found that when those of us who are housed realize that those experiencing homelessness are not all that different from us, it unleashes a bit more compassion.

Among the most common misconceptions is that many of those experiencing homelessness in Pierce County came here from elsewhere, which can lead to people feeling justified in saying: “It’s not our problem.”

But data show that 72 percent of those counted in January’s PIT reported they last lived in Pierce County before becoming homeless. (Six percent last lived in King County, 8 percent elsewhere in Washington and 14 percent in other states).

There is no evidence of a mass migration of homeless folks into our community; the truth is that the vast majority are our Pierce County neighbors.

Finally, in light of claims made by a recent local television program that all homeless individuals have mental health or drug abuse issues, it’s important to note that those responding to January’s PIT reported a mental illness disability just 36 percent of the time, and substance use 23 percent of the time.

The truth can set us free, and just might spur us on to greater compassion for our unhoused neighbors.

Michael Yoder is executive director of Tacoma-based Associated Ministries. Reach him by email at MichaelY@AssociatedMinistries.org


If you feel prompted to learn more about the reality of homelessness and practical things that can be done to make a difference, consider attending Associated Ministries’ next Community Quarterly Meeting on June 20 at 5 p.m. at Oasis of Hope Center in Tacoma.

For more data about homelessness and Pierce County’s response, visit the Homeless Programs online dashboard.