On a cold midwinter night in January, more than 200 volunteers searched Pierce County to count the number of people who did not have a home to go to.
By the end of the night, they had their total: 1,762 people that night were homeless, close to 500 more than the previous year.
But the annual Pierce County Point-in-Time survey was more than just a tally of those who are homeless – it’s an opportunity for the county to get in-depth information about who is homeless, why they’re homeless, and what direction the county should move in order to help those in need.
This year, the survey recorded a 37 percent increase in unsheltered homelessness, a number that Pierce County Council Chair Doug Richardson called “sobering.”
Unsheltered homelessness has been on the rise in Pierce County since 2013 due to the lack of available shelter beds, said Tess Colby, the manager of the county’s Community Development department, which includes housing and homeless programs.
“Overall, homelessness is increasing for a lot of reasons – none of us can put a finger on one cause of that – but the fact that so many more people are sleeping outside really is a consequence of not having shelter beds available when somebody needs it,” Colby said in a May 3 phone interview.
According to the survey, the number of temporary shelter beds in 2013 was about 1,700. Now, the number of beds are just above 1,000.
The survey shows a large drop in shelter beds from 2012 to 2013, bringing the number of temporary beds down from 1,700 to just around 1,100, but that was because these temporary housing shelters were turned into permanent housing, Colby explained.
“There’s two types of temporary housing,” Colby said. “One type is this notion of transitional housing. Those are units where somebody would live for in the unit for anywhere for one to two years and get services with the notion that they would be ready to move into housing after that one to two year period.”
But the county has found that people are better helped when they’re moved straight away into permanent housing instead of into transitional housing unit, Colby continued, and many of these transitional housing units were made into permanent housing for their occupants.
“This reduces the number of overall temporary housing units, but that didn’t have an impact on shelter,” she said.
According to Colby, the drops between 2013 and 2016 are explained by the variances in seasonal shelter beds from year to year, but the number of year-round shelter beds have stayed pretty consistent over the last four years.
More homeless youth?
Up through the 2014 Point-in-Time survey, finding and counting homeless young adults under the age of 25, and especially challenging for unaccompanied youth under 18, Colby said.
But in 2015, Tacoma opened an overnight temporary youth shelter, which helped Pierce County identify and collect more information about homeless youth and young adults.
Since the shelter opened, the Point-in-Time survey counted 89 homeless youth and young adults in 2015 and 90 in 2016.
“Because we have such a hard time reaching out to youth and young adults who are homeless, but aren’t in a shelter… I don’t know whether youth and young adult homelessness is increasing, or decreasing,” Colby said. “It’s a black hole for us.”
Increase in chronic homelessness
Colby said the survey defines “chronic” homelessness in two ways: either being homeless for more than a year without getting into temporary or permanent housing, or be homeless more than four times in three years (and the total amount of time spent homeless adds up to more than a year).
People who are chronically homeless must also have a physical or mental disability.
Chronic homelessness has also nearly doubled going from a count of 217 in 2013 to 420 in 2016.
This increase in chronic homelessness tells Colby that there is a highly vulnerable population living in the county that are not receiving the services they need to get themselves back into permanent housing.
“One thing that happens is when people are homeless for a long period of time, their lives adjust to that situation of homelessness,” she said. “It means that it takes much more deliberate intervention, more deliberate delivery of services, more deliberate outreach with those folks to help them make the transition back into housing.”
Leading causes of homelessness
While Point-in-Time surveyors are tallying up the homeless population around Pierce County, they also take the time to talk with these individuals and ask questions, one of which is what were the leading or contributing causes to their homeless situation.
The most common answer by far, from 358 individuals in shelters and 129 people on the street, was fleeing from domestic violence.
While the 2015 Point-in-Time survey did not include domestic violence statistics in the report, Colby said the county is definitely seeing an increase in the number of people who identify themselves as a survivor of domestic violence.
More than 200 people reported they were homeless because they lost their job, and another 190 said a family crisis led to their current situation.
Substance abuse, economic reasons and the loss of temporary reasons completed the list of the top five leading factors of homeless in Pierce County.
How to help
Although the Housing, Homeless and Community Development department is doing as much as it can to help the homeless, Colby said, the department’s limited resources without growth only put the department in a position to shuffle money around from one area to another without being able to expand.
But what really needs to happen, Colby said, is homelessness and its various causes and factors, as well as the many solutions to homelessness, comes up and remains in the forefront of the public’s mind, especially as summer is just around the corner and the warm months help us forget the struggle of the homeless.
“I think volunteering in whatever capacity feel comfortable with, with any number of the non-profit organizations that are service people who experience homelessness is a great way to feel connected and to really make a meaningful contribution,” Colby said, saying faith-based organizations can be another strong option for volunteer services.
“We’re all neighbors,” Colby said. “I think the report certainly bears this out – the vast majority of folks who are homeless in Pierce County were our neighbors previously in Pierce County. They come from Pierce County. In whatever ways people feel they can donate their time and resources would be a great contribution.”