A night of heartache and hope

Last night (and this morning), I was out in the field as part of our annual Point in Time (PIT) count of chronically homeless residents.  Each year, our Human Services team leads a community effort to conduct this “Count” to meet a Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requirement.  It is a big effort.

In the weeks leading up to the Count, teams are collecting food, Gatorade, clothing, hygiene kits and other items to distribute. In addition, they are bringing together counting teams made up of service providers, Human Services staff, community volunteers – and several County elected officials!  They also prepare maps of the County so we can fan out to count and interview many of the chronically homeless living unsheltered in our community. Other teams count those living in shelters.

I look forward to this night every year, but not in a “like to do it” way.  As I have said many times before, there is no substitute for seeing people’s lives firsthand.  Talking with people who are living on the street is more powerful and more important than just looking at numbers on a spreadsheet.  And talking with our professionals who are working directly with people trapped in homelessness gives me valuable perspectives and insights.  Finally, spending a long cold and wet January night out talking with folks without a home gives me empathy.  Because, when I am done counting and exhausted, I get to head home to my nice warm bed.

I was fortunate enough to be out with Orlando Stumvoll again this year along with two of his colleagues from Comprehensive Life Resources (CLR).  We were joined by Councilmember Dave Morell and LeighBeth Merrick of the Council staff.  Our assigned area was broadly around the Tacoma Mall – including the encampment behind the Post Office on South Pine, close to the Tacoma Mall Plaza building.

Here are some observations from my time counting:

Sadly, but not surprisingly, the number of people living on our streets is up from last year.  While the PIT is not a perfect science and can be affected by many factors – like weather – I think we all see this in our own travels around the county.  For many reasons, chronic homelessness has been increasing and will not decrease on its own.

The encampments I visited were still incredibly unsafe and unsanitary.  I saw evidence of crime and violence – and significant amounts of untreated mental illness and addiction.  There were more RVs and more people sleeping in their car this year than in my previous counts.  While in most cases, the RVs and cars were broken down and surrounded by squalor, I also saw some in relatively good condition.

It breaks my heart to witness this in our community.  But I saw something else this year that gave me hope.  For the first time, I saw several people express an interest in getting help and getting off the streets.  In the past, our outreach workers would be prompting folks about services.  This year they came up to us and asked about getting support.  Later, when talking with other Count teams, I heard many similar stories.

Let me share three specific interactions:

KWC is a 43-year-old man who has been homeless for 18 years.  He told me he has been clean and sober for nine months but also has a significant untreated mental illness. He does day jobs – most recently helping to build a fence – and his girlfriend is expecting a child.  As we talked, he shared he is finally ready to find a home for the chance of a more stable life.

Roger is in his late 20’s and has been homeless for more than five years. He is currently living in a large encampment, has his tent surrounded by a fence, and suffers from mental health issues, likely compounded by drug use.  He is finally ready to try a tiny home.  Roger has an appointment with a CLR outreach worker for this coming Tuesday morning at 10:30.

Lolita is a woman in her early 30’s.  She has not been homeless for long and is living in her car – which just broke down.  She works part time.  CLR is following up with her early next week.  She looks like a great candidate for a rapid re-housing program – and hopefully can get back to stability quickly.

My interactions last night/this morning reinforced my commitment to our Pierce County Village proposal. KWC is exactly the kind of person who could benefit from the housing and services planned for the community we envision.  I believe Roger also is a good prospect.  And I heard many other stories of people whose lives could be restored with supportive on-site services.

I shared our hopes for the Village with our CLR outreach workers, who hadn’t heard of it.  When they learned it was not a short-term housing option, but a place where folks could get stable, healthy, and live out their lives they were excited.  They felt it would give them an option for people trapped in homelessness that currently does not exist.

So, despite the heartache of last night, I have hope for the future.

I want to express my deep appreciation to Heather Moss and her amazing Human Services team, including John Barbee and Delmar Algee.  I was particularly excited to see Nate Bonton, who recently joined Human Services, providing key data analysis of our homeless services.  I also want to thank Council Chair Ryan Mello and Councilmembers Dave Morell, Jani Hitchen, Paul Herrera and Robyn Denson for joining this year’s Count.

Finally, a very special thanks to Jeff Rodgers from Human Services who did all the planning, preparation, and implementation of this year’s PIT!  I hope he gets a weekend off to recover!

Thanks for reading,