Every year Pierce County does a Point in Time count of the homeless living in the county. This work is required by the federal office of Housing and Urban Development so communities can qualify for homeless grant funding. This survey does more than count though. It helps to put a face on the homeless. They include not only individuals but also veterans, families, young adults and children. This is surprising to many people. What is also surprising is the cause of today’s homelessness.
There are three factors that contribute to homelessness:
- Lack of affordable housing, increasing rents, and evictions
- Job loss, lack of skills and lack of employment or job opportunities
- Mental illness, health emergency, chronic illness and substance use.
Between 2012-2017 there has been a 49 percent increase in a one-bedroom rental and yet wages have only increased 4.4 percent during a similar time period. The expected percentage of an individual’s income to be spent on housing costs (rent or mortgage) is 30 percent. Yet 52 percent of Pierce County residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The situation gets even bleaker from those who make minimum wage. An individual making minimum wage needs to work 78 hours a week in order to spend 30 percent of his/her income on rent for a one-bedroom apartment. The result is that more and more people are spending a majority of their income on housing costs, leaving less and less for food, clothing, transportation and other everyday living costs. Many people, especially those designated as below middle class, are often a paycheck away from being homeless.
Those with health issues are especially vulnerable. For example, those with behavioral health issues often experience gaps in service, which make it difficult to keep a house and a job. Around 75 percent of Pierce County residents can’t access public funded outpatient care for serious behavioral health issues. Further, it is even worse for those who need inpatient care and treatment. In Pierce County we have 2.8 inpatient psychiatric beds, the lowest of urban counties in the State.
This year’s Point in Time effort had more than 300 volunteers who spread throughout the county in cities and unincorporated areas. The count focuses on the literally homeless, those who are unsheltered, in shelters, or in transitional housing. The volunteers surveyed people living in encampments and additionally counted through observation those living in encampments who didn’t consent to being surveyed in more detail.
Here are the results of this year’s count:
- 1,628 individuals are homeless.
- 25 percent of those are families with children, 9 percent are veterans and 6 percent are young adults (age 18-24) or unaccompanied youth (under 18 without guardianship)
- 53 percent are in emergency shelters, 1 percent are in transitional housing, 12 percent sleep in their vehicles and 34 percent sleep outdoors.
Over the past five years, Pierce County has overhauled its homeless crisis response. Providing outreach to encampments helps more people access available resources and makes the camp-to-housing pipeline more efficient. Prioritizing the most vulnerable clients for housing intervention means the people most in need of housing are rapidly rehoused. Supporting and empowering clients to find their own housing solutions ends housing crises quickly and cost-effectively. As we have applied this new approach, we’ve helped more people leave homelessness for permanent housing. In 2017, nearly 50 percent of people who experienced homelessness for at least one day in the county moved into some type of temporary housing. This is good news but we know we have a lot to do. We can’t always control who experiences homelessness, but we can control what happens when someone does. Surveys like the Point in Time homeless count help us keep on top of the issue with current information. We are making progress but the crisis isn’t over for everyone.
Connie Ladenburg is a member of the Pierce County Council. See her blogs as https://blog.co.pierce.wa.us/connieladenburg.