By Marybeth McCarthy
When I joined the Tacoma-Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness 15 years ago, the goal was to end homelessness in 10 years. All the right people were at the table. There was ambitious grant writing, research on what worked elsewhere, the new point in time count and so much determination. When my career took a sharp turn and I started working in the community college system, I had reason to believe those still involved would be successful!
About two years ago, I rejoined the Coalition. Homelessness was on the uptick and getting worse.
The Coalition was larger, everyone at the rows of tables was serious, but the situation was grim. We shared resources, communicated regularly, and took action: a job fair geared toward the homeless, coordination of services during freezing nights. When the number of people who were offered jobs left them after only a month, the next job fair included follow up services to ensure retention. Capacity was expanded for freezing nights; moving furniture so offices could be made into sleeping areas, which resulted in a commitment to not turn anyone away. Search and Rescue, the police, non-profits and government agencies were all working together. Amazing stuff, but I also noticed the growing number of tents erected in parks, a row conspicuously right in front of the Tacoma Housing Authority.
People who had never been homeless are living in cars, sheds, even sleeping in offices at night. Most were employed; I met them because they were determined to change their circumstances by going to school. Some were people who I thought should be planning for retirement but were coming to school instead.
The problem is surprisingly simple: The rent is too high. The solution is complex. Government agencies and CBOs are pouring tax-payers’ dollars and private funds into programs but only making a dent in the problem. Even private citizens are fully engaged.
Yes, the number of homeless, according to the annual point in time count, went down but only slightly.
Some believe that building high-end housing will result in more affordable housing because those that can afford it will move, making less expensive units available to others. I don’t agree. The high-end units are cheaper than the same unit in Seattle so those units fill up with people moving south, not the people who already live here.
Tacoma needs to have some pride. As the hottest real estate markets in the country, we can stop offering tax breaks and demand that all buildings include units that are affordable to low-income families.
I think we also need to realize that we need a systemic change. If we limit rent increases to ten percent per year (and the same for property taxes), more, if not most, individuals and families could stay in place.
Rent control is now a reality in Oregon. Washingtonians should take note. The solution may be in our own backyard.
Marybeth McCarthy is a Masters in Public Administration student at The Evergreen State College, Tacoma.