This past January the county organized volunteers to go into our community to count the homeless. This calculation is not scientific, it’s a one-day snapshot that captures those who are homeless. I believe all of us have not only seen the homeless on our streets, but are also concerned about their living conditions. I know I am. Not only did our volunteers count 1,321 homeless, but the county wanted to know more about who they are, including why they are homeless, and where they came from, to help better plan how we should be responding in order to reduce the homeless population.
Here are the some highlights of what we found: 39 percent are women, 14 percent are victims of domestic violence, 14 percent are households with children, and 6 percent are young adults and unaccompanied youth (without an adult).
Not all are living outdoors. Many are in cars or abandoned buildings (16 percent) or our local shelters (44 percent). And, yes, many have disabilities, some with multiple conditions. The most common is mental illness (31 percent) or physical disability (22 percent), closely followed by chronic health conditions (19 percent) and substance abuse (18 percent).
Why? The main cause of homelessness is economic. The top causes are job loss, lack of job skills, or other economic reasons. The next is a loss of their living situation or an eviction. And finally, a family crisis or a family break-up.
Where did they come from? Overwhelmingly, most people told us that they lived in Pierce County (79 percent) before they became homeless, followed by 7 percent from King County, 6 percent from other Washington counties, and only 7 percent from outside the state.
What do we do with this information? It will help as we continue to work on this social problem and I believe that the county is heading in the right direction. The county’s approach is through a continuum of services; shelters, diversion/prevention, rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing. Here are some examples:
- Our Diversion program literally helps homeless families (sleeping outside or in a shelter) re-establish housing within 30 days. Almost 500 families in 2016 regained housing because of diversion.
- Our rapid rehousing program that helps families and individuals regain permanent housing with shallow rent support and services, lasting about 6 months. In 2016, 350 homeless households regained housing through rapid rehousing.
- Our emergency overnight shelters, on any given night, provides a bed and safe place to sleep to about 600 people, including families and young adults.
- Our stock of Permanent Supportive Housing that presently houses over 500 people and families who were previously homeless.
Without these programs the numbers would be immensely larger. Is it enough? Probably not or the number would be lower. So we will keep working. Next year, I hope the number is even lower.