Office of Jani Hitchen, Pierce County Council, District 6 announcement.
Welcome to my first Hitchen Post entry for 2023! I thought I would start off with a blog about something that has an easy answer.
That’s it. That is the answer.
Wait, if it is that easy, why haven’t we fixed it?
Now that is the conundrum.
If it was as easy as just housing, there shouldn’t be a problem. Just build more housing.
Sadly, there are a variety of factors that impact housing and homelessness in Pierce County, the State of Washington, across the country and around the world.
This blog is inspired by a variety of events and activities I participated in January and February. These different events shed some light on how broken our system really is, and why it seems to be getting worse. However, there is hope coming in March.
Let’s look at the spectrum of housing to homelessness:
Home Ownership: You have the resources – savings, income, and ability to access a mortgage to purchase a home. With that purchase comes the responsibility of up-keep, insurance, taxes, and the debt. When something in your life changes (divorce, loss of a job, medical costs, death in the family) you suddenly find your situation has changed. And yet, you still have all the costs. The flip side is you have an asset you could sell.
Many homeowners, especially seniors and those on fixed incomes, can’t afford to move. They bought their house when it made sense financially, and now things have changed. They can’t find something in Pierce County that meets their needs AND is affordable. Finding a rental that takes pets, is wheelchair accessible, or isn’t double what they are paying now is a reality that many face. They will stay in a home they can’t afford or can’t take care of, and this leads to all kinds of problems.
Renters: You entered a lease with a landlord with the resources to make it work. However, rents go up and personal situations change. Just like with home ownership, your job or relationship status can change, you have incurred medical debt or added to your family. The rent for the same space doubling in a year sounds ridiculous but it is happening.
While the state of Washington and some of our cities have put protections in place, it is still a precarious situation. Once you get to a point that you cannot afford the rent, you must find a place that meets your needs, and you can afford. And when you cannot find a place, then what?
Supportive Housing: This is defined as housing that comes with physical, behavioral, or social supports, and is a HUGE need in our county. This could be for our young adults leaving foster care, to those with mental health concerns that need support to stay safe. It could be for adults with disabilities that need help with everyday tasks or can’t safely be left alone. We have added several hundred of these types of units to our inventory in the County, but we need HUNDREDS more. These are specifically designed for people that cannot successfully maintain on their own, and don’t have family around to help. Without these supports, they often fall into our chronically homeless population, living in tents, cars and trailers across the region.
Transitional Housing: This could be apartments and rooms for those fleeing domestic and gender-based violence. A family that was evicted and has small children. A senior that is waiting for a spot at supportive housing facility. The couple renting had their unit sold quickly, and they couldn’t find a place quick enough and had no place to go. This type of shelter might be used only during the immediate transition from one home to another. In a tight market, like what we are experiencing right now, it can be challenging for anyone to find housing. Add limited resources, physical space needs, or having children or a pet; finding a new place can be difficult.
We have added Safe Parking to this list, and I really believe it is transitional housing. It allows individuals and families to stay together, stay local to their community and stay in a car or RV depending on the provider. This is new to Pierce County, and really is a blessing. It is low impact but provides safety and continuity for those experiencing some of the worst times of their lives. They are often truly in transition, and most are employed or in school. They just can’t find a place to call home. This gives them a consistent end point, and a connection with resources.
Emergency Shelter: There are many types, but it is what most people think of when it comes to homelessness is a congregate shelter. They think barrack style shelter where you have dozens of bunk beds set up in a large space and people co-mingling. The reality is we still have that, but we also have hotel rooms, shared spaces, small apartment style units and other ways for those experiencing homelessness to find support, help and privacy. The point of emergency shelter is always to transition to something permanent. The problem is there simply is not enough to do that transition.
Unsheltered: For almost 2,200 individuals in Pierce that have nowhere to go, they can be some of the most challenging to support, and the most in need of support. Many of those have lived rough for years or decades and accumulated so much trauma that they just don’t qualify for any of the programs we have access to.
People will say, ‘why don’t they just get a job?’ But when you are literally surviving, not sure where you will sleep, store your belongings, or even know where you will be able to use the bathroom, finding a job can be a challenge. We know that many use substances to stay awake, sleep or just feel better in the cold and wet environment. They can’t shower or do laundry; they don’t have a driver’s license or bed. How do they go about getting a job? You must start with the basics. You must build trust, so they are willing to get help. Whether that is for substance use, mental health, basic needs or going inside. It takes time and you need to have several conversations. When they move around OR are forced to move around, it can be hard to ever get to that level of trust.
The county moves dozens of people into housing every month, but dozens more find themselves without a home. It is like trying to bail out a boat but no plan to fill the leak. That is where building housing of ALL types comes in.
There is Hope
I am hopeful later this month we will pass the 1/10th of 1% sale tax for housing and homelessness for our County. The City of Tacoma and many other cities and counties have passed this in Washington state. Every system I discussed above can be addressed and supported using these dollars.
We need housing that can be built, like the many Habitat for Humanity projects that are bringing permanently affordable housing units that people can purchase. These are units that will stay in the hands of residents of our County that are income constrained but working.
We need to be able to provide funds for fixing and maintaining our aging housing stock, like Rebuilding Together South Sound recently did when they replaced the siding of an aging modular home. A single mother of five bought what she thought would be her forever home, only to find that there had been water damage. She couldn’t afford to make the repairs on her own and Rebuilding Together brought in an outside company to provide the supplies and skilled labor. They have installed ramps for seniors and made repairs on homes for our disabled and aging residents that just want to stay in their home.
We need programs like New Hope Mobile Response Team that takes their shower and laundry trailer out to our safe parking sites and other shelter locations across our County. They only go out every other week to some locations, which is wonderful, but truly need more opportunities.
We need supports for emergency safe housing for people fleeing domestic violence so they can access the courts, advocates, medical and counseling services to begin to heal. They need privacy and have sometimes fled with nothing.
We need more than 57,000 affordable (50% or lower area median income) housing units. This could be apartments, plexes, townhomes, single family homes, and even other types of housing that are new to our County. The point is our market is doing just fine and making plenty of money building for everyone else. Without either doing the building ourselves or partnering with other organizations, those units simply will not get built. There isn’t enough profit in doing affordable housing at this scale.
All that being said, there are some steps I hope we will take in the next couple of months that will help. They are investing funds specifically to support our chronically homeless, putting out more funding opportunities for supportive services for those with mental health and substance use disorders and passing the 1/10th of 1% to help in the many ways I mentioned above.
I’m signing off to go work on these projects and hope you can be supportive and have a little better understanding around WHY this isn’t just a simple fix.
Mary Clare Benson says
Jani, thank you so much for this comprehensive list of the various housing needs in our county. It gives me and other readers the background information to make a thoughtful choice regarding voting for the tax to support providing more housing of various kinds in our community.
Bob Warfield says
THANK YOU Council Member Hitchen.
A 10th of 1% here, a 10th there. Where does it start; where does it end – “the problem,” “the fix”? If you are looking for a “problem” for which there is no “fix” you could not find one of more complexity and “cat herding difficulty than managing “homelessness.”
As citizens of place, stakeholders in society, we all have interest and investment in the well-being of others beyond self. As a “problem,” inherent among society everywhere, “homeless” status and need become manifest when a person or family crosses their threshold of provisional shelter. We (society) tend toward involvement when that threshold is crossed, the shelter lost, and the person or family becomes “transient,” unmoored from place.
Strategies ensue, now categorically role-defined, “landlord” (the people or society who remain taxed to maintain place), and “tenants” (those loosed by fate or fortune to the far side of threshold). The “problem,” now evident, is addressed: the “landlord” (society) may rise to institutional response, from a sense of public moral obligation to the “tenant” (homeless person or family). Or the “landlord” (keepers of place) may seek to distance or separate the ”tenant” from its radius of concern.
A glimpse of history shows little change in related human drama from its first recorded page. What has changed, possibly and providentially, is the “landlord’s” recognition and response to the “tenant” BEFORE their threshold is crossed into the higher costs and complications of “homeless” circumstance.
Reasons are manifold, not least, the pressing number of people caught in the cyclical nature and unsettling mobility of “homeless” populations. And not to be lost, is the “landlord’s” interest and responsibility to recognize that ability to pay the rent inevitably due, is founded on competent citizenship and begins with pre-school education, a function of place. In respect of that, we are “tenants” all, hopefully now recognizing that within community is where this issue becomes apparent, and where it must be addressed – one pre-homeless person and family at a time.
Frank E says
The adage “Fool me once, that’s on you; fool me twice, that’s on me” applies here.
I have no doubt Councilwoman Hitchens’ is sincere. But WHERE has more tax dollars helped. Yes 1/10 of 1% isn’t much, but I am unaware of any governmentally “funded” program to address homelessness in our area that has worked. Just “feel good programs” that leave people wasting away on the street and dying, while the funding that was to be the great fix produces nothing – but a call for more funding.
As noted by many, the bulk of the people you see on the news or as you drive in our community are mentally ill and addicted folks unwilling to accept services, who prefer to be one the street. I’ve yet to see a profile of a “street person” who is actively looking for work. None, never. Like it or not, some tough love is needed first. An example? Look into the program that the city of Coronado, CA has implemented and try that first. Reports are that it works. And yes, “code enforcement” means exactly what you think it means. Take the help or else.
Until I see our political class act realistically and admit to the behavioral component of this problem, I won’t be voting for any new taxes. We’ve all been burned by Sound Transit – who thinks government can really handle a more complex problem like this?
Brian Borgelt says
Let’s talk more about Sound Transit, the quasi-government agency that stayed home for 2 years while getting paid to do nothing.
It has been granted billions and billions of taxpayer dollars to build alternate transportation to Tacoma, but now they tell us it will be another decade or so.
This is after constant delays and excuses.
While Sound Transit fails to build transportation, the budget has shifted to diversity, equity, and inclusion schemes.
The 140 unit affordable housing project at the Tacoma Dome Station just ground to a halt mid-stream, when Sound Transit announced that “the train ain’t commin”.
How bout we take half their budget (billion$), and build affordable housing for everyone all around the proposed transit hubs, fill em with people, and give Sound Transit some special incentive, like work or be fired, to do the job they were tasked with?
Carol Colleran says
Jani, Thank you for addressing the situation we are in today where homelessness has reached a peak not seen since the Great Depression. In cities like Houston, TX where housing is found for the homeless, great improvements are seen in physical and mental health and eventually in employment and formerly homeless individuals returning to contributing positively to society. Services and housing do cost money and I realize that money is not available without finding a new source. I fully support the need for the 1/10th of 1% sales tax. There is no other conceivable way to build the needed housing and to provide the support system needed to help our fellow citizens. If there was another way, I know we would already be taking that path. Homelessness costs us all money in services, be they medical, public safety, garbage removal, to say nothing of the family breakups, lost education for the children, and emotional distress that comes with being homeless. For the people who are low income, they can apply for the Working Families Tax Credit and receive up to $1,200 back if they meet eligibility requirements, so this tax will not be a burden on those who cannot afford it. Others who can afford it should celebrate the tax if for no other reason than that eventually people will not be camping on public right-of-ways, in the woods and parks, in around office and commercial buildings.