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Envisioning system change: Pierce County’s audacious plan to end homelessness

Updated: Jan 8, 2022

Photo by Mark White, Dignity City

The mural across from a Tacoma overpass camp provides hope to those experiencing homelessness.


By Timothy Harris

Dignity City Executive Director

Like many areas in Washington state, Tacoma and surrounding cities are struggling with sky-rocketing housing costs, an emergency shelter shortage, and too many people living in cars and tents. Pierce County has proposed a new plan that would take the numbers of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness to "functional zero."

If adopted, the comprehensive plan, released on Dec. 1, would either supersede or guide Pierce County’s previous plans. The proposal now heads to Pierce County Council for review.

The new plan is the result of a Council resolution adopted last March that asked what it would take to fully meet the need for shelter in Pierce County within five years.

Currently, the county has an estimated 3,300 persons experiencing homelessness and just 998 shelter beds and 15 safe parking spots to accommodate that need.

A companion document released as part of the plan establishes guidelines for new shelter and roughs out the cost of closing the Pierce County shelter gap.

The “Adequate Shelter for All” plan estimates that 2,287 new beds distributed across 15 municipalities would require close to $14 million in capital outlay and $35 million in annual operating costs. Those costs would be in addition to the $21 million now spent on emergency shelter each year.

By addressing the full scope of Pierce County’s need without limiting the answer to currently existing resources, the new comprehensive plan stands out from other homeless plans that exist in Washington state.

Rather than taking the fragmented and incremental approach that has typified other approaches, the new plan envisions what a truly systemic approach to ending homelessness might look like.

The plan leads with a commitment to system change, and follows King County’s lead by establishing a regional homeless authority to coordinate services and align the work of 15 municipalities by 2025.

Other features of the plan include:

  • New investments in homeless prevention. The least expensive way to solve homelessness, the plan states, is to keep it from happening in the first place.

  • A commitment to “Targeted Universalism,” an equity-based strategy designed to guide immediate priorities while accommodating the unique needs of diverse populations.

  • A prioritization of emergency shelter. This focuses resources on reducing the immediate trauma and harm while broadening political support by addressing visible homelessness.

  • Improved coordination of the systems that directly address homelessness, along with the 21 identified “adjacent” systems that indirectly intersect.

The good news is that getting to functional zero — the latest bureaucratic short-hand for making homelessness rare, brief, and one-time — is not only possible, but in the long-term, cost effective.

The annual cost of housing a chronically homeless individual is pegged at $22,000, as opposed to the $40,000 in estimated system-wide costs incurred if that person remains homeless.

The challenge is that, despite the long-term system efficiencies, this vision comes with a hefty initial price tag. Increased homeless services operations funding alone is pegged at $117 million over the current $40 million spent annually.

Other costs are $15 million in capital funding for new shelter and between $100 million and $400 million for 1,800 units of housing.

One aspect of the plan that is likely to draw more attention is the expansion of the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) to track all interactions with homeless people — both formal and informal — on a by-name basis. The plan would also make the HMIS database transparent to other systems beyond Pierce County’s.

While this change is central to the plan’s systems-based approach to ending homelessness, it comes at the cost of individual confidentiality, and would require universal usage of the HMIS database.

Given the failures of previous plans to end homelessness and political instability at the federal level, some skepticism is hard to avoid. But this plan doesn’t ask what’s "politically possible." It asks what solving homelessness would take.

After 40 years of misery management, we’ve long known what works. What’s been missing are adequate resources and sufficient political will. This plan offers opportunity to change that.

The comprehensive plan now heads back to Pierce County Council. What happens then is less than clear. What we do know is that without strong, consistent community engagement and support, little is likely to change.

That’s not cynicism. That’s realism. Ending homelessness isn’t magic. It’s work, and that work belongs to all of us.

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