A beacon of hope for homeless young adults

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By John Larson
jlarson@tacomaweekly.com

Of all the various types of people in the growing ranks of the homeless on the streets of Tacoma, teenagers and young adults are in a unique situation. Young enough to have the potential for a good future, their net worth is so low that they could easily end up on a path that will lead to them being the homeless men and women in their fifties in the year 2049. Lacking basic necessities like a bed inside a building, showers and laundry facilities, they struggle to get by from one day to the next. While many of their peers who grew up in families that are socially and financially stable are off attending college, they wander the streets seeking shelter.

One place they find it is at Beacon Activity Center. Located at 415 Fawcett Ave., it was built in 1942 and operated as a United Service Organizations (USO) hall for use by military personnel. It was renamed Beacon Senior Center in the late 1970s. It is currently operated by Korean Women’s Association to offer services and activities to senior citizens during the day.

In response to the plight of homeless youth on the streets of Tacoma, the city began using the facility in the evenings as shelter for young adults ages 18-24. It is operated by Comprehensive Life Resources. Services are offered during the day to youth ages 12-24. The city conducted a feasibility study, completed last December, on ways to better serve both the youth and seniors who spend time in the center.

Tacoma City Council heard an update on plans during a recent study session. The presenters were Linda Stewart, director of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services, Erica Azcueta, manager of the department’s Homelessness and Household Stability Program, Vicky McLaurin, manager of the department’s Social Wellness Program, and Justin Davis from the Public Works Department.

McLaurin said the center serves 50 seniors, age 60 or above, on an average day. It meets a variety of their social needs, with actives such as bingo, karaoke and arts and crafts. A lunch is served for a small donation. Many are on a fixed income, such as a monthly Social Security check.

Azcueta said that services are tailored to address cultural diversity among those who receive them. “We want to ensure that equity is essential to providing services,” she remarked.

In 2016 the city purchased a building at 5401 South Tacoma Way, with plans to convert it into a shelter for young adults. Stewart said those plans were shelved after a feasibility study determined that location was not appropriate. The building was sold, which helped fund the $1.8 million in the city budget for a crisis residential center for youth. City Manager Elizabeth Pauli said at the South Tacoma location, the city moved forward before doing the feasibility study, which determined the building was not suitable for the intended use. “We learned from our mistake the last time,” she remarked.

She also noted that no people under 18 are served at the Stability Site, a facility for homeless adults on Puyallup Avenue. She said that concept is not directed at youth homelessness.

The city conducted surveys of seniors who use this center. It coordinated with Metro Parks to determine if seniors were interested in relocating to People’s Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Way for their day services, or if they would prefer to stay at Beacon. Stewart noted she and McLaurin took two field trips to People’s Center during the process.

The results showed the seniors wanted to remain at Beacon. They also are comfortable with sharing the facility with the young people. “It has been going over very well for the seniors,” Stewart remarked.

The city then did an architectural study of Beacon to determine ways to better serve the seniors and youth. It considered three options: remodel the existing building to make it more efficient; expand the existing building; or replace the building on the existing site. The city decided to move forward on the first option. Davis said slopes on the property to the south and east made expansion a difficult option.

There are plans to renovate Beacon so it has separate entrances for seniors and youth, with separate space to serve both populations. Shared spaces would be limited to the kitchen and fitness areas. The concept would have 25 to 30 beds, with the potential for 50. It would serve 35 to 50 youth during the day, and 55 seniors. The cost is estimated at between $4.5 million and $5.6 million. Davis said he is targeting for a figure between $4.2 and $5 million. About $1.6 million can be allocated either from the general fund or the real estate excise tax.

A design phase would begin in the fourth quarter of this year, with permitting and bidding on contracts in 2020. Construction would begin around October 1, 2020, with completion around September of 2021. When the center is unavailable due to construction, the city plans to temporarily relocate the youth services to 2342 Tacoma Avenue. Seniors will be relocated to the Lighthouse Senior Center. “We will make that as painless as possible for the seniors,” Stewart remarked. Stewart noted that facility has undergone some recent upgrades, such as new windows.

Councilmember Conor McCarthy mentioned taking a young man to a social to apply for benefits. “It is not uncommon to see a lot of young people sleeping outside,” he observed. He said there were probably 15 hanging out around the main branch of Tacoma Public Library downtown.

Mayor Victoria Woodard said it is heartening to know that seniors and youth can be served in the same location. She suggested staff study how to program inter-generational activities in the future. She said for young people out on the streets, the seniors could serves as foster grandparents.

Councilmember Keith Blocker, who spent some stints in his youth being out on the streets and staying in shelters, is pleased with the progress so far. “I am excited,” he said. “This is exciting.”

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