Photo by Mark White, Dignity City
An encampment resident at Evergreen State College Tacoma campus stokes a fire to make some hot water. The encampment was partially swept at the end of October, but many residents remain.
Dignity City Contributor
On a bright day at the end of August, a group convened in the parking lot of the Evergreen State College in Tacoma campus. A circle of chairs, appropriately distanced for the coronavirus climate, was arranged around a focal point of bright fruits, a potted plant and a stick wrapped in a leather cord on a striped blanket.
It formed a sort of concentric circle within a ring of tents and makeshift structures that surrounded the building, spilling out from the grass between the sidewalk and the road. The encampment had grown since the school closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but access to trash services and hygiene facilities had not.
Soon, however, students were expected to return to the campus in person and Academic Dean Marcia Tate Arunga wanted to come to an understanding with the community that had formed. So, she invited residents in, calling out through a bullhorn.
“This is a circle of understanding,” she called out, James Brown’s “I Feel Good” playing from speakers behind her. “If you live here, you are invited.”
Over the next two hours, encampment residents, formerly incarcerated people, a housed neighbor and others seated in the circle would take turns passing the talking stick and saying their piece. Framing the circle on one side was a free vaccination clinic and other services, a sweetener to draw people in and protect community health. On the other side, vehicle residents with their battered cars were parked in the Evergreen lot.
By the end of October, some of the encampment had been swept. If Pierce County’s plans had come to fruition, maybe that wouldn’t have been necessary.
In May 2021, even as the pandemic raged and visible homelessness began to grow, officials passed a resolution to end street homelessness by Nov. 1. It was an ambitious goal, ending street homelessness in a mere six months in one of the most uncertain times in recent history. It rang with the timbre of previous commitments in other jurisdictions to end homelessness, such as the 10-year plans promoted by the federal government but never backed by federal dollars. Ultimately, the Nov. 1 target proved impossible to hit in part due to the requirements of government process for public funds and the intractability of the underlying problem — a lack of affordable housing that prevented people from cycling through the shelter system and into a stable situation.
But this moment was different, said Maureen Howard of the Tacoma Pierce County Coalition To End Homelessness. There was more money available to pour into the homelessness system than ever before, and elected officials were laser-focused on using those dollars to find solutions that fit the needs of their houseless neighbors.
“We had money we had never had, we had political will that we had never had. Doesn’t mean they all agree, elected folks, no,” Howard said. “But what was very clear to everybody was that in every jurisdiction, homelessness and affordable housing were in their top three.”
The pandemic unleashed the capacity of the United States to invest in domestic affairs in a way that hasn’t been seen in the better part of a century.
The federal government approved trillions of dollars of spending to support communities during the coronavirus pandemic — a $2.2 trillion package called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March 2020 under former President Donald Trump, and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a $1.9 trillion package signed by President Joe Biden. Both bills are priced over a decade.
That meant billions of dollars flowing to local communities earmarked specifically for homelessness and housing relief meant to lift people out of homelessness while preventing others from losing their existing housing.
It might not be the end, either — Congress continues to wrangle over a third package of infrastructure spending initially proposed at another $3.5 trillion over 10 years.
Local resources have also been brought to bear, said Pierce County Councilmember Hans Zeiger.
“We have access to our new behavioral health tax in Pierce County, so that is a source of funds that can dovetail with some of these investments. And so that is a source of ongoing funding that we didn’t have previously,” Zeiger said. “Another factor is that the state is putting unprecedented amounts of money into homelessness programs and we should compete for that.”
Zeiger represents District 2, which includes cities such as Lakeland, Puyallup and Fife as well as a portion of Tacoma and the Port of Tacoma. He represented Pierce County in the state legislature as a Republican and is ideologically aligned with the concept of getting people off the street and into shelter. The Nov. 1 goal seemed unrealistic, he conceded.
“We’ve made some gains, but certainly not what we were hoping to do back in the springtime,” Zeiger said.
On Dec. 3, 2020, a homeless man named Patrick N. Shenaurlt was shot and killed in an encampment near Tacoma’s Evergreen College campus. The alleged shooter was a housed man who had been recruited by a friend to chase the campers out after his vehicle had been burgled, according to Q13.
The killing sparked the Safe Shelter Summit, which took place the morning of Dec. 21, National Homeless Persons Memorial Day, when communities across the country mourn the deaths of those who have died without shelter of their own.
That was where the seed of the plan to end street homelessness by Nov. 1 took root, Howard said.
“We started talking out of the Safe Shelter Summit and the conversations that followed after that and because of the increasing number of people who were not in shelter,” Howard said.
It was a “big, audacious goal” to get people off the street or into safety by Nov. 1, she admitted, and one that members of the coalition thought they might have to pursue on their own.
But elected officials in Tacoma and then Pierce County got on board, pushing forward with the development of a comprehensive plan to end homelessness and two other groups: one with the goal of beefing up shelter options to get people off the street by Nov. 1 and another steering committee with the task of creating a plan to end homelessness in Pierce County by the end of November.
The coalition chose Nov. 1 mainly because of the weather, Howard said. In 2020, the temperatures in Tacoma stuck stubbornly in the 40s and 50s, potentially deadly temperatures for people who do not have the ability to warm themselves.
In May, with the new resources flowing, getting sufficient shelter options open by the time the cold weather hit seemed possible.
As smaller communities began experiencing visible homelessness like never before, they put pressure on electeds to tackle the problem, said Heather Moss, Pierce County’s director of Human Services.
“I think there’s a lot more community will to do something — and that something ranges from punitive to fully supportive and we’re trying to figure out what that mix is — but there is more political will now than there has been in the past, largely due to the pandemic,” Moss said.
Pierce County took hold of that and asked two central questions: How many beds would it take to be able to offer every person experiencing homelessness a place to sleep inside, and how much would it cost to provide them?
Officials began by calculating the deficit — how many unsheltered people lived in Pierce County, how many beds were available in Pierce County and how much shelter was needed to make up the difference?
Using the most recent point-in-time count as a jumping off point, county officials estimated there were 3,300 unsheltered people in the county, 998 year-round emergency shelter beds and 15 safe parking spots for people living in their vehicles.
That meant 2,287 new units needed to come online in roughly six months as the respective committees were studying the best ways to approach the task in order to meet the Nov. 1 goal.
To some degree, those plans are still coming together — notes from the Sept. 30 meeting of the Shelter Plan Workgroup show waffling on the number of spaces for vehicle residents, for example, and some pressure to focus on congregate shelter, which is less expensive than individual units but became less popular because of the fear of coronavirus spread.
There is a sentiment that the shelter plan is a “living document” that can and should change as needs change, according to the notes.
Certainly, there was some surprise at the price tag associated with standing up a variety of new shelter options, ranging from safe parking spots to hotel rooms to tiny house villages to self-managed encampments.
At the Aug. 17 meeting of the Human Services Committee, Pierce County councilmembers discovered that it would take another $50.3 million per year to open the needed 2,287 beds, not including capital costs. That cost came on top of the existing $21 million annual outlay to operate the 998 year-round beds.
That figure was twice what staff had initially anticipated, Moss told committee members at the time.
Even with the additional funding from the federal and state governments, that level of spending could be difficult to sustain. Those influxes are one-time funds, meaning that if they’re used to open new shelter beds another source will have to be identified to ensure that they remain operational.
The county hopes to make the case to private business and philanthropy to continue the investments on an ongoing basis, Moss said.
WHAT IS SUCCESS?
When it comes to a goal like ending street homelessness, what does success really look like from inside the system?
Howard doesn’t think she can answer that question.
“I don’t think we define it, I think people who are experiencing homelessness define it and I think we won’t like some of their definitions, but we have to respect them,” Howard said.
Moss points to “functional zero,” the theory that while people in the community will continue to fall into homelessness, there will be space for them in the shelter system and enough throughput to move people currently in the shelter system into housing.
“The biggest challenge for Pierce County, particularly, is that until we have more affordable housing long term for people, we’re always going to be chasing that goal,” Moss said.
According to an annual report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) called “The Gap,” the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area lacked 90,521 units affordable to people making 30 percent or less of the area median income.
NLIHC examines housing affordability from the demand side, as well, in a report called “Out of Reach” which analyzes the hourly wage necessary for someone who works 40 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rate without paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
In Pierce County, that’s $28.10 per hour, or $58,440, which is certainly out of reach for many people experiencing homelessness.
Pierce County may not meet the Nov. 1 goal, but leadership is attempting to harness the moment to push toward addressing street homelessness. The “incremental shelter rollout” is expected to continue at least until March 2022, according to a presentation to the Shelter Plan Work Group.
That’s in part because of government processes that began with the County Council signing off on the plan because money was involved. Staff to guide the effort didn’t begin until Aug. 1. Contracting processes must be completed before nonprofits can be selected to do the work. Those nonprofits can’t staff up until money begins to flow and then they must compete for a scarce workforce — frontline workers with the skills to care for vulnerable people.
“I think that’s been a huge part of the delay — process,” Howard said.
Back in August, Moss was staring down the Nov. 1 deadline like an oncoming train.
“I worry that we’re setting ourselves up a little bit, but I guess what I keep coming back to is, ‘What is the alternative?’ and the alternative is to not try and already think we’re losing before we even get out of the gate,” Moss said.