Homeless programs get winter boost, from youth center
City of Tacoma is flowing another $235,000 toward homeless shelters and services during the coming winter under, as inclement weather is forcing shelters to go beyond their capacity when winter turns harsh. The city had been using the declaration on a day-to-day basis over the past years, but the decision earlier this month allows shelters to go over capacity every night between now and March.
City estimates suggest that some 250 families with children and more than 400 single adults in Tacoma are experiencing homelessness, and that every night about 100 of those families and individuals are turned away from area shelters because of a lack of space. The declaration will allow for 230 more shelter beds.
The added money comes on top of the $6.3 million the city is slated to spend on homeless services under the current biannual budget.
“The city, as we have talked about during the last several months, is making an effort and looking forward to working with our partners to provide homeless services during these tough winter months,” City Manager T.C. Broadnax said.
Because of a lack of a regional approach to sheltering homeless people, Tacoma’s four shelters support an area much larger than the city itself, drawing the homeless from South King County, throughout Pierce County and down to Thurston County. Mayor Marilyn Strickland pointed out that of the 14 homeless shelters and programs in the county, 11 are located within the city, for example.
“Tacoma alone can’t carry the full responsibility for the county and adjoining cities in providing services,” she said. “We are happy to do it. It is a moral obligation, but we need everyone to be all in on this so that we can come up with a way to address this.”
The Salvation Army’s shelter program of 14 families and six individuals will add 50 beds through March, while the Tacoma Rescue Mission’s 214 beds will be upped by 80 more beds and space for 50 families. Catholic Community Services will add 80 beds to its roster of 167 beds for singles and families. The added beds will help the immediate shortage so fewer homeless people and families are turned away from shelters. But the added beds are just temporary and don’t directly address the underlying issues that cause homelessness in the first place.
“Homelessness is a serious problem, and it is a serious problem because we are addressing it in the wrong way,” Rescue Mission Program Director Frank Jackson said. “It’s economics. People don’t have enough money to live.”
Even with the improving economy in recent years, wages have not kept up with rising rental costs, for example, so more people are living at or below the poverty line, even with steady paychecks. Some 90 children currently call the Rescue Mission shelters their home.
“The idea is not to build more shelters, because if you do, you warehouse people, and warehousing people starts to dehumanize them,” Jackson said. “You can’t build yourself out of homelessness.”
FOCUS ON YOUTH
On Dec. 21, the city of Tacoma turned the Beacon Senior Center into an emergency overnight shelter for youth experiencing homelessness, tackling one of the cities biggest, and most hidden issues facing our area.
In 2014, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) found that 1,764 K-12 Tacoma School District students have been identified as experiencing homelessness, and it’s been 30 long years since Tacoma had a dedicated spot for these youth to go for the night.
This is something that the city is trying to fix, along with Pierce County Community Youth Services, to develop a center for youth experiencing homelessness that will not only serve as an overnight shelter for youth, but as a location where teens can have the resources they need such as nourishing meals, clothing, hygiene and a place to stay for the night. The center would also provide transitional steps toward permanent housing, case management, basic skills training and access to employment and education opportunities.
“Youth and young adult homelessness is unique because the vast majority of the times the young person has no control over their circumstances. It is determined by others,” said Kurt Miller, executive director of Pierce County Community Youth Services. “Research shows that when they are provided resources, there is a positive impact on their mental and physical health, which means the cycle of homelessness can end with them.”
The center is accounted for in the city’s budget, and the search is currently on for the perfect location to house the shelter. With the winter season and cold weather upon Tacoma, the city knew it had to act to get immediate relief to those in need, which is how the shelter at Beacon was conceived.
“We’ve been looking for that right facility and we have not found it but we continue to look. We had hoped we would have that facility by now, because we knew we also had to address sheltering those young adults,” Tacoma’s Human Services Manager Pam Duncan said.
While homelessness is an issue that affects all age groups, youth experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable.
“A person who is experiencing homelessness is vulnerable for a variety of reasons and when you layer youth onto that, you’re experience makes you more vulnerable,” Duncan said
In 2013, a study was conducted by the University of Washington-Tacoma, asking questions to 51 youth experiencing homelessness in Pierce County, 25 percent of whom identified as LGBTQ and were kicked out of their own homes.
“Youth of color and LGBTQ youth are disproportionately impacted by homelessness,” Duncan said.
This added vulnerability can lead these youth experiencing homelessness into a cycle that can be very tough to escape. Things like the upcoming shelter and Tacoma Homeless Services efforts to connect with these teens are ways to try and prevent this from happening.
“Many are likely, if we can’t connect them to services, to stumble. Hopefully we can catch these individuals before they stumble,” said Colin DeForrest, Homeless Services Manager for Tacoma’s Coalition to End Homelessness. “The longer we have a youth on the street, it’s just rolling the dice. They can be preyed upon in so many ways.”
The upcoming shelter isn’t the only effort by the city to help curb the issue of homelessness. The Positive Interactions program sees a group of skilled people interface with homeless people to connect them with valuable resources, such as shelter. Furthermore, programs are in place to educate homeowners about foreclosure prevention.
“It’s an important issue to tackle because these are human beings and they don’t have places to sleep, and it’s cold outside. If you have a caring bone in your body, it should be unacceptable,” DeForrest said. “It’s vital, being a city workers, that we want to make the best city and the safest city. We want this city to thrive. We want the individuals in this city to thrive. We want to give chances that see these individuals thriving. We want to give every opportunity to really thrive and stabilize.”
During this time of year, Tacoma Homeless Services wants people to remember that homelessness is not a seasonal issue.
“This is going on in July, in the fall in the winter in the spring. This is an issue that isn’t going to go away without a lot of work from the community,” DeForrest said.