I have sat down several times over the last month to write this column. My goal is to be positive and hopeful, but the news that came out on April 30th has been difficult to absorb. The Pierce County Point in Time Count was held on January 29, and the report indicated that 1,762 people were counted as homeless, and 494 of those were completely unsheltered.
This is a 37% increase in overall homelessness and a 46% increase in those who are unsheltered from the count last year; other communities in our state grew by roughly 20%.
Over the past year, MDC has participated in several community conversations regarding homelessness. MDC prides itself on finding solutions for complex situations impacting individuals, families, and the community. Yet, we too are challenged with the best way to move forward with short term help, without losing site of long term permanent solutions.The MDC Board of Directors has recognized this dramatic increase, and has committed to focusing services at the intersection of health and housing for those individuals with the most complex needs. We have been developing new services for this population over the past 2 years. We are ready to scale the best practice models we already employ, but the need outpaces the funding.
At the last of several community conversations on homelessness, as well as two on mental health, nothing new has been offered. Discussions always come around to studying the one-tenth of one percent sales tax for mental health and substance use disorders. Pierce County is the only urban county, and the only one along the Interstate-5 corridor, that has not implemented this tax. The challenge is that it takes a super majority at the Pierce County Council to pass this at the council. The City of Tacoma implemented a similar citywide tax 3 years ago, and the impact has been significant. Two apartment complexes were completed, leveraging these dollars with other funding; mental health and substance use disorder clinics co-located within the homeless shelters were developed, and many other critical services have been supported by this tax.
Based on the growth rate last year, approximately 1.2 additional people become homeless every day in Pierce County. Since the Pierce County Council started studying the shortcomings in mental health services in our county, another 100 people likely are surviving on the streets.
These are not just numbers. These are individuals who have significant health issues – chronic diseases, substance use disorder, mental health disorder, poor nutrition. As a result of these health challenges, people on average have a life expectancy 20 years shorter than people who have housing. Last year, two of our tenants who had been chronically homeless for years and found housing at the Randall Townsend Apartments died after less than a year of having a home. They died from natural causes, if you can call living in a tent with no medical care, untreated mental health and substance use disorder for years natural.
I refuse to see 1,762 as a number. Those 1,762 people are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, and friends. These are people that have not been dealt a fair shake. Yes, they may have behaviors that we do not like, for many the traumas they have incurred throughout their lives have led to their current situation.
The one thing I have learned at MDC is that those experiencing homelessness still have hope. Combining hope, the human spirit, creativity and community we can solve the homelessness challenge and make a better community for all of us. If you have thoughts about how our community can help stem the rising tide of homelessness, please give me a call at (253) 284-9079 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
P. Mark Pereboom
MDC President & CEO