Everyone counts in Pierce County

Knocking on doors without an address

Photos by Jeff Hobson

In downtown Puyallup — near a school, a busy avenue and a park fronted by a statue of the city’s prosperous and popular founding father — lives the quick-to-cry daughter of two Boeing employees.

She’s 30 years old, shares her place with a boyfriend her parents don’t like, and cuts hair 16 hours a week for minimum wage and gratuities. She’d work more, she says, but her doctor told her not to. The heart attack she had six months ago means she needs to take it slow.

When it has gasoline, the woman’s home is mobile. When it doesn’t, it’s just an unremarkable extended-cab pickup stranded in a public parking lot. During the night, the truck’s front seat is stacked with belongings so its residents can sleep in the back seat. During the day, the truck’s back seat is stacked with belongings so its residents can appear normal to anyone who might catch a glimpse inside.

Two miles up that busy avenue, Meridian, in South Hill — where the average household income hovers in the $60,000 range — there’s a 62-year-old veteran who lives in his motorhome (in this case, a misnomer) in the parking lot of a retail shopping center. The smell of cat urine inside his home is toxic. The man’s broken right foot is swollen and in need of medical attention. His cancer is, far as he knows, in remission.

He’s writing a book:

“The stories I have will blow your mind.”

Parked behind the man is a smaller motorhome (another misnomer) with windows secured by Great Stuff sealant — the yellow, infuriatingly sticky kind that comes in a spray can with a soon-to-be-clogged straw. The vehicle’s roof is covered with a blue tarp; its uncarpeted floor is waterlogged. A battery and an alternator — or one long jumpstart — would make the vehicle operable. A transmission with a working reverse gear would make it semi-practical.

“I just cut my hair and sold it to buy this place.”Inside lives a 28-year-old man and a 31-year-old woman. She wears a light-colored stocking cap with ear flaps:

He wants work:

“I’ll do any job. But I can’t find anything. I don’t want a handout.”


Three sad stories, one long day. Late January 2013.

Pierce County’s homeless are hard to find. Most of them aren’t trenchcoat-wearing stereotypes standing outside downtown libraries each morning waiting for the doors to unlock so they can pretend to read Entertainment Weekly while they snooze away the drowsiness from last night’s cheap-wine-induced wakefulness. Rather, most of Pierce County’s homeless are women with children who have been abused and sheltered, veterans with mental issues who have no desire to be discovered and families hit hard by recession.

“Now more than ever there are families who are experiencing homelessness because they have the misfortune of not having a support system,” says Janne Hutchins, executive director of Living Access Support Alliance, or LASA, in Lakewood, an agency focused on homelessness prevention. “Yes, people make bad choices but all of us have made some bad choices in our life. We now have more working poor than ever before. Whenever we go to a fast-food restaurant or other place for service there is a chance that person waiting on us may actually be homeless. The old idea that it was just single men that chose that lifestyle is gone.”

Numerous organizations are looking to help. Some want to provide food, shelter and services. Some have lofty goals to end all homelessness.

Some want to conduct a count.

To do so, sometime during the last week of every January, dozens of volunteers armed with stacks of a one-page survey set out to search the 1,806 square miles of Pierce County during one 24-hour period. Their mission has a name — Point-In-Time Count — and it wouldn’t be an easy one to accomplish were it supported by 100 times as many people. What they’re looking for, according to the Washington State Department of Commerce, are:

“ … persons living in emergency shelters (including motel/hotel vouchers), transitional housing, or unsheltered (in places not meant for human habitation, such as cars, parks, sidewalks, abandoned buildings, on the street) … Persons living in a dwelling lacking any of the following should be considered homeless: drinking water, restroom, heat, ability to cook hot food, or ability to bathe.”

In other words, these volunteers are on a homeless hunt. Like many hunts, there’s an element of sustenance involved. But here it’s not for the hunter.

Toting toiletries, nonperishable food, bottled water or other small-time incentives, they flock to meal sites, encampments — even Puyallup parking lots — to gather fractions of an important final number. In 2012, that number was 1,997. In 2013, it was significantly lower, 1,303, but mostly due to a countywide housing reclassification that disqualified hundreds from meeting the technical definition of homelessness. (The reclassification was to correct housing that always had been permanent but previously had been counted as homeless housing.) The numbers did decline from 2012 to 2013, but not to the extent it appears on first glance.

This daylong snapshot, as mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), qualifies counties to receive federal funding to battle the often-misunderstood social issue. In 2012, Pierce County received roughly $3 million in HUD dollars for this fight and, despite the decline in official homeless numbers, expects to receive the same amount in 2013. The count also helps determine where the funding should be spent.

More documented homeless, more potential funding.

Those associated with the Point-In-Time Count know it is far from perfect, including those whose clients ultimately stand to benefit most from the survey. Rae Anne Giron, who helps coordinate Point-In-Time Count volunteers through her job at Pierce County’s Department of Community Connections, is one such person.

14“The Point-In-Time survey is just a slice in time,” Giron says. “We are to provide an estimate of those individuals that are homeless on one night in January. In no way is this [count] scientific. While we do our best to survey each individual, not all individuals that are homeless are willing to share information or make themselves available to be surveyed.”

Giron is right. Many times, the homeless don’t want to be found. Some don’t trust others — especially those in service for the government — and hide from society and the volunteers. Others, when they are spotted, refuse to fill out the six-question survey. Some even may be running from the law or debt collectors.

Part-time homeless often aren’t on the streets when the count takes place, either, particularly because it’s conducted at the end of January. If a person or family experiencing homelessness has any housing options that don’t involve the great outdoors, the middle of Western Washington’s winter is the time they would be most inclined to use them.

Giron and her volunteers understand this.

“It is much easier to capture data for individuals that are housed in our shelter system than to capture information of those that are unsheltered,” she says, and the numbers back her up. Of the 1,303 homeless counted in 2013, 1,183 of them were in that shelter system, meaning they were residing in emergency or transitional housing. Only 120 were unsheltered — on the streets.

Patti Spaulding-Klewin, Veteran Program team lead of Catholic Community Services/Phoenix Housing Network in Tacoma, also understands the data collected by the Point-In-Time Count aren’t all-inclusive.

“It’s challenging to count people in one day,” she says. “[The count] doesn’t pick up the people who are newly homeless sometimes. It does not capture everybody and there are some folks who just don’t want to be counted. We run into that, or they don’t want to be in a database, they don’t want to be part of anything. It’s not the most accurate data but it is data.”

HUD’s definition of homelessness is narrower than that of many other government agencies and advocacy groups. HUD’s definition does not include those “couch-surfing” or doubled up in homes with relatives or other families. Add only the doubled-up individuals to the Point-In-Time Count, the National Alliance to End Homelessness suggests, and the homeless numbers increase fivefold. For example, in 2012 — the last year for which complete state numbers are available — the Point-In-Time survey revealed 20,336 homeless people in all of Washington state. Yet the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction alone reported 27,390 homeless students attended its schools during the 2011-2012 school year. The Department of Education’s definition of homelessness, obviously, is broader than HUD’s and includes those who are doubled up. HUD’s definition, many education experts say, frequently excludes families, children and unaccompanied youth.

The numbers in Pierce County seem to support that theory. Some 464, nearly 36 percent, of the 1,303 people tallied during the 2013 Point-In-Time Count were under age 18. But 462 of them were living in either emergency or transitional housing within the county’s shelter system. Only two were found unaccompanied.

“We rarely identify families with children unsheltered, as they are harder to locate,” Pierce County’s Giron says. “We mainly do our survey during the daylight hours and in service locations — hot-meal sites, health clinics, day shelters. Schools provide information on families with children but the information is often incomplete for HUD requirements. [Schools] operate on the looser definition of homelessness through McKinney-Vento.”

McKinney-Vento: The Good with the Bad
The McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program, part of the better-known No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, requires states to “ensure that each homeless child and youth has equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as other children and youth.”

Districts, whether or not they receive McKinney-Vento dollars, must designate a liaison to work with homeless students. Those liaisons assist the students in nearly every way. They make sure their immunizations are current. They partner with community agencies to find services he or she may be lacking. They make sure the student receives free meals at school. They even help find clothing when necessary.

McKinney-Vento’s looser definition of homelessness is the same as the Department of Education’s and also includes those students who qualify to be counted during the Point-In-Time Count as well as those who are doubled up. During the 2011-12 school year, Tacoma Public Schools — the state’s third-largest district with 28,000 students — had 1,247 homeless students. More than 600 of them were doubled up. Only 36 were the stereotypes, unsheltered street kids the public may see pan-handling on sidewalks, loitering in parks or curled up at night in a sleeping bag in the doorway of their favorite espresso shop.

One of the more controversial of McKinney-Vento’s mandates involves transportation. Lack of it often is thought of as the biggest barrier between homeless students and regular school attendance. To eliminate that hurdle, school districts must provide transportation to homeless students who are forced to temporarily move within 50 miles one way of their school of origin.

If, for example, a homeless student begins her year at one Tacoma neighborhood school and then moves to a different part of town, it is the responsibility of Tacoma Public Schools to provide transportation to get the child to her original school each day if she chooses to remain there. If, however, the homeless student begins the school year in Tacoma and then moves to a different district, say rural Orting, it then becomes the responsibility of both districts to agree upon and fund a way to get the student to her original school, and back, each day. That can mean the use of district buses, public transportation or even a cab ride.

HUD dollars don’t fund such transportation, which makes the mandate an expensive one for districts. Pierce County school districts spend roughly $1 million a year on such transportation, the goal of which is to keep students’ educational life as close to normal as possible, even if their living situation is unstable. Keeping the same classes, friends, schedule and teachers, the theory goes, is far better than forcing another life change.

Tacoma has for decades had programs in place to assist homeless students. One of the district’s most prominent programs began in the late 1980s. It was called the Eugene P. Tone School and was the district’s acknowledgement of the then hundreds of homeless school-age children that existed within its boundaries. Each day, homeless students in kindergarten through eighth grade were bused to Tone, where they attended class and had access to counselors, social workers and nurses. Tone’s entire student body was homeless.

Tone School proved highly successful and served as a model for other districts across the country. In 1996, the school was even a finalist for Harvard University’s annual Innovations in American Government Award. However, the school closed in 2001, following the passage of the McKinney-Vento act. Tone School became Tone Center, which today provides services to homeless students at their individual schools rather than at one centralized location.

McCarver_elementary_schoolAnother successful program is under way in Tacoma’s impoverished Hilltop neighborhood. McCarver Elementary School’s Pilot Housing and Education Program, a partnership between the school, the district and the Tacoma Housing Authority, provides rental assistance and social services for to up to 50 students. To qualify, parents must agree to keep their students enrolled at McCarver through the fifth grade and also actively participate in their child’s education.

Serving Those Who Served
Several homeless subpopulations also were recorded by the 2013 Point-In-Time Count volunteers. Among the 1,303 total homeless were:
3 with HIV/AIDS.
62 chronic substance abusers.
131 chronically homeless (20 of which came from five families).
157 victims of domestic violence.
162 severely mentally ill.

There also were 93 veterans. If one number alone could underscore what many believe are the shortcomings of the Point-In-Time Count, this one might be it. The state Department of Veterans Affairs — which operates several outreach programs aimed at helping homeless veterans — believes there are more than 8,000 honorably discharged veterans in Washington who are homeless, roughly 3,000 of which live in Pierce County or somewhere else in the Puget Sound area.

“I think the number is much larger [than 93],” says Larry Geringer, the homeless veterans representative for the Tacoma Rescue Mission. Off the top of his head, Geringer can list sites in the county where some 200 homeless veterans are sheltered. The mission itself, he says, has an active roster of some 35 to 50 homeless veterans and he expects that number to grow as the military continues paring its ranks. Geringer believes more help is needed.

“The biggest gap we see is the lack of emergency housing in a location run for and by veterans,” he says. “Emergency housing is now only available at homeless shelters for all individuals. There may be hundreds of veterans sleeping in cars and on basement couches who will not go to a homeless shelter.”

Home to some 90,000 veterans and 33,645 active-duty soldiers at one of the largest military bases in the United States in Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Pierce County has countless programs in place to assist homeless veterans. Strongest among them may well be the local Heroes to Hometowns chapter.

Heroes to Hometowns (H2H) was created in 2006 by a partnership between the Department of Defense and the American Legion to help military communities such as Pierce County assist injured veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. That assistance typically includes help with housing, childcare, finances and even the running of basic errands. Pierce County’s H2H chapter takes the national program one step further by helping all veterans, not only those who have suffered injuries.

Pierce County’s H2H chapter is led by Pat Steel, a gregarious retired Army colonel who began his military career at Fort Lewis on a rainy spring day in 1953 and ended it on the same base on New Year’s Eve some 27 years later. In between were several stops, including Korea, Germany, Vietnam, and a four-year stint at the Pentagon. Steel is a soldier’s soldier if ever there was one, and one who especially cares about those discharged at the Pierce County base he calls home. “I will always miss soldiers,” is one of Steel’s catchphrases.

Steel’s H2H essentially is a group of groups. More than 210 individuals and organizations from Pierce, King, Thurston, Kitsap and Snohomish counties are members, creating an expansive network with a common goal of serving those who served. Once a month, representatives attend a two-hour roundtable at Tacoma Goodwill to share ideas, solicit opinions and show off recent accomplishments. Patriotism abounds: each meeting begins with an invocation and a moment of silence for the fallen, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. Homelessness is just one part of the business that follows, but it’s a vital part that tugs at Steel’s flag-waving heart.

“Homelessness is a serious problem in Pierce County for veterans and their families and will continue to be for the foreseeable future,” Steel says. “Housing, jobs, food and a sense of respect and dignity are basic requirements for all veterans who were asked to serve this great nation. To provide any less than that is a disgrace, and something that we who are working so hard to support the veterans will not allow.”

Steel has plenty of related stories. One he likes to share centers on a veteran-headed family that had 24 hours left in a hotel they were staying in. The H2H affiliate that had placed the family in the hotel could no longer afford to pay for the family’s room but didn’t want them to go homeless. They called Steel to see what he could do. “I did a quick survey of several organizations and was not able to raise the money,” Steel says. But, true to his character, Steel didn’t give up. “I contacted a donor, and she and I went to the motel. Both of us paid for the family to stay there an additional two weeks, which was what they needed.”

Even Steel admits that for every success story he sees or is part of, such as the one above, he also sees several failures. They seem to happen most when families are involved. “Single homeless vets can find some housing at the local mission, Associated Ministries and some other places, but families are harder to place,” he says. “There are still many families living in cars or worse.”

underlockonthekeyUnder Lock on the Key
Key Peninsula always has been a world unto itself.

Getting there from the more metropolitan parts of Pierce County involves crossing two bridges: one heading northwest over the Tacoma Narrows to the Gig Harbor Peninsula and then one heading west over the Purdy Spit. Crossing the Narrows Bridge requires a toll tinged with unintended, yet still gloomy, symbolism:

It’s free to get to Key Peninsula, but it will cost you $5.25 if you want leave.

Such isolation once made the 16-mile-long, key-shaped body of land a perfect spot for anarchists, several of whom moved there in the late 1880s to develop a utopian community that allowed people “the personal liberty to follow their own line of action no matter how much it may differ from the custom of the past or present, without censure or ostracism from their neighbor.”

The author of those words, Oliver Verity, chose to pursue his “own line of action” on a spot filled with old-growth trees on the eastern peninsula called Joe’s Bay. He named his new town the Mutual Home Colony Association — Home for short. A judge’s order dissolved the association in 1919 but its independent-thinking ideals remained for decades. In 1946, historian Stewart Holbrook wrote that Home once was “one of the most celebrated or notorious spots in the United States” and that “even the evangelical churches have given it up as a Sodom fit only for the fires of The Pit.”

Today, there are a handful of churches in the area surrounding the 1,300-resident unincorporated town. There’s also the remodeled 1924 Lakebay School building that’s home to Key Peninsula Community Services (KPCS), a combination food bank/senior center/bread closet/community center and, recently, site of a free monthly health clinic serving those lacking a primary-care provider or health insurance. The organization’s service area spans 66 miles, from Purdy to the north to the end of the Longbranch Peninsula to the south.

Weeks before the 2013 Point-In-Time Count, KPCS began advertising itself as a reporting site for the survey. Come here to be counted. The message was written on the agency’s reader board next to busy Key Peninsula Highway, the only north-south road that stretches the entire length of the peninsula. The message also was advertised in the Key Peninsula News, a free publication that reaches more than half the peninsula’s 17,000 residents.

Those actions didn’t seem to help lure the homeless from wherever they were to stand and be counted.

“For my location, we counted three [homeless individuals] this year,” says Penny Gazabat, executive director of KPCS. “I think we had 11 the year before. And we make it [getting counted] as appealing as possible. We have gift cards for the stores, and if they’re willing to fill out a survey we will give them a gift card. They don’t find that out until later. It’s kind of in appreciation.”

Gazabat believes the numbers recorded at her location severely minimize the real homeless problem in her region.

“My very best guesstimate is probably that we have about 100 [homeless individuals], and that includes the families that the school district is working with [and] people who have squatted out here,” she says. “But it could be way more than that. It could be me just not wanting to think that there’s that many people. When people don’t want to be discovered this is the best community for them. There are a lot of vets out here that won’t come out of the woodwork so much [but] they’ll come into the food bank occasionally. There are a lot of barriers, a lot of reasons for not getting into that count.”

Some of Key Peninsula’s homeless live there out of fear, fear that they will be injured if they are thrown to the homeless wolves in Tacoma. For them, Key Peninsula is the perfect spot. They call the area’s woods home. Some shuffle their cars, families and belongings back and forth between campgrounds at Penrose Point and Joemma Beach state parks. Sometimes, those homeless lie to their children and tell them they’re camping.

6Gazabat’s agency doesn’t receive federal funding in conjunction with the Point-In-Time Count and doesn’t request any. Pierce County’s paperwork is too extensive, she says, and associated federal funds usually go to organizations that have homeless-assistance programs in place. KPCS doesn’t have any such programs. “That’s not to say that we couldn’t apply,” Gazabat says. “We typically pass because we do not have the infrastructure or resources out here to accommodate that type of program.”

Yet KPCS still conducts a Point-In-Time Count, Gazabat says, “because we do have a population that needs resources even if those resources are not here. It is rare that they will go to Tacoma for services, but at least it’s an option.”

Transportation — or the lack of it — is a big reason Gazabat’s clients rarely seek services from Tacoma or anywhere in the rest of metropolitan Pierce County. Even after some recent major cuts, cash-strapped Pierce Transit still remains a viable transportation option for many urban homeless needing rides to places they can get help. But Pierce Transit doesn’t run on the Key Peninsula, one of the areas of the county where nothing is within walking distance. That makes obtaining those big-city services — or even the services offered on the less-populated side of the Narrows in Home, Key Center or Gig Harbor — difficult or nearly impossible for those without motorized transportation.

Peninsula Communities of Faith is one of the groups looking to help bring services to the underserved area. The nonprofit service organization operates a popular Food Backpacks 4 Kids program that provides hundreds of weekend meals to children in Gig Harbor and on the Key Peninsula whose families are homeless or in other ways struggling. It also runs the Peninsula Homeless Initiative, an effort geared toward helping the area’s homeless.

South Sound Outreach is another program available to Key Peninsula’s homeless population. The nonprofit agency offers assistance with a variety of issues, including housing, through its countywide connection centers. The one on Key Peninsula is in Key Center. “[They have] the capacity to assist up to six families with children with three to six months of rental assistance,” says Pierce County’s Giron. “Very small, I know, but it’s a start.”

A Phone Call Away
Today, one phone call might be all it takes for a homeless person or family to receive help in Pierce County.

As recent as three years ago, those searching for a safe place to sleep indoors on any given night were forced to call individual shelters. That is, if they knew what those shelters were, and had contact information and the means to make a phone call. With only hundreds of beds available countywide and thousands of homeless people, the chances of finding a place to stay without making numerous calls were slim. Many didn’t bother to try.

But the creation of Access Point 4 Housing in January 2011 made getting help easier. An Associated Ministries program, Access Point 4 Housing is funded by Pierce County and designed to be a centralized intake and referral system for the homeless or those at risk of becoming so. One phone call could connect an individual or family with a shelter or housing program, help them secure benefits or hook them up with referrals to other services, such as those dealing with substance abuse, mental health or employment. During its first few months, Access Point 4 Housing averaged more than 1,500 unduplicated phone calls per month.

The creation of Access Point 4 Housing was part of Pierce County’s Strategic Plan to End Homelessness. The plan actually is three plans: one calling for an end to chronic homeless by 2015; one seeking to cut all homelessness in half by 2016; and one looking to cut family homelessness in half by 2021.

Experts say so far the plans have had mixed success.

The plan to end chronic homelessness focused on street homelessness, says Troy Christensen, former administrator of Pierce County’s Homeless Program and current chief of operations and strategy for Tacoma’s Metropolitan Development Council.

“There have been significant developments in housing technology for this population, and [there are] several organizations — led by Greater Lakes Mental Healthcare, Metropolitan Development Council and Catholic Community Services — [which] has resulted in a commensurate reduction in street homelessness,” Christensen says. “The one-night Point-In-Time Count has shown an 84 percent reduction in street homelessness in eight years, from 727 to 126. This is one of the best gains in the country.”

Looking at Point-In-Time Count numbers, the state-mandated plan to cut homelessness in half by 2016 doesn’t appear to be on track. That appearance is misleading, Christensen says.

“There are several reasons for this,” he says. “Transitional housing has been the main intervention, and HUD still counts this as homeless (because, by definition the housing is transitory). So a lot more individuals and families came off the street, but are not yet in permanent housing.”

Prompted by Building Changes and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the plan to end family homelessness is the newest of the three county plans. “There are some amazing things that are happening with rapid rehousing, and conversions of transitional housing that will result in countable results in the next year or two,” Christensen says. “This will also drastically impact the overall plan to end homelessness required by Washington State.”

If you’re homeless, you can grab a free dinner five nights a week at the Washington National Guard Armory in Puyallup. You have an hour to eat, then you’re outside again. Don’t think about hanging around. The neighbors have complained several times. They won’t stand for it.

For parts of the year, you can take a post-dinner walk to that night’s pick-up location and catch a ride to one of 10 area churches that take turns hosting you for the evening as part of the Freezing Nights program. Enjoy a snack, watch a movie, sleep, eat breakfast. Then you’re on your own for the day.

If you walk five blocks and cross the busy avenue, you can hang out at the downtown park near where a 30-year-old woman and her boyfriend once lived in a black pickup. If you head two miles up the hill, you can spend time at the retail shopping center where one stinky cat, two misnamed motorhomes and three people used to reside.

Last January, those three people were homeless like you. They stood, they were counted. Now, they’re just gone.

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