By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index
Homelessness is an issue that seems to tie every municipality, neighborhood and certainly every budgetary cycle into intractable knots.
Homelessness is one of those issues that, perhaps like every social issue, is tolerable, or at least neglectable, up to a certain point.
We don’t care about it until it affects us. Or until we can’t avoid seeing it. Every. Day.
Then we’ll care.
Perhaps I’m being cynical here, but I’m not entirely convinced by the crocodile tears of almost every social service agency, neighborhood organization, church or political candidate as they propose yet another program, policy or even law that will get those ragged tents and piles of garbage off our streets – or at least out of sight.
This is far from a new problem.
Way back in 2017 it was estimated that 500 people were homeless in Tacoma.
According to the 2017 Point in Time Count, Pierce County as a whole had more than 1,300 experiencing homelessness, with 504 unsheltered during the late January count.
“Our goal isn’t to end homelessness or to solve homelessness,” then-Tacoma Mayor (and current U.S. Representative from Washington’s 10th congressional district) Marilyn Strickland said. “This effort is about reducing homelessness, engaging our community, engaging the homeless population and learning what we can learn about longer-term sustainable solutions.”
Back then it seemed that homelessness was, in fact, a manageable problem.
And it was defined, at least by some, not as a housing problem but as an issue of public health and safety.
As it was. And still is.
But it also continues to be an issue of, ahem, housing.
City or privately provided services such as handwashing stations, porta potties and showers are great – and they look fabulous on reports or Powerpoint presentations.
But the impact on individual restoration or any given cluster of makeshift shelters might force one to come to a quite different conclusion.
In other words, we have not, in fact, learned much in the past five or so years about what is, or should be our response to homelessness on our streets.
Jumping from 2017 to 2022, it is obvious that we have other, even more pressing “public health and safety” issues – and homelessness has metastasized across our streets and neighborhoods to a degree than none of us could have imagined five years ago.
As overwhelming as it is, prioritizing problem solving based on immensity is an inherently flawed strategy.
It could be argued that all large problems, from divorce to national insolvency, began as small problems that left unattended grew or propagated.
While we can’t solve every small problem that comes along, we should at minimum, pay attention to them.
They are important, not because of the seed they are today but because of the harvest they could become.
The wisdom and necessity of solving small problems early on is by no means new, but perpetually forgotten.
The parable of the nail conveys the impact of seemingly small problems. While its origins are unknown, versions of the following go back as far as the 13th century:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Gradually and then suddenly
Hemingway’s famous observation about bankruptcy (Gradually and then suddenly) applies to every area from individual mortality (or weight gain) to social issues like homelessness.
Here, locally for example, the number of people without homes in Tacoma grew from 6,664 people in 2017 to 10,858 in 2020, about a 63 percent increase, according to data from the Pierce County Homeless Management Information System (HMIS).
Another 60 percent increase would bring that number to well over 15,000; perilously close to ten percent of our city’s population.
On a related note, Washington residents continue to experience a dramatically higher level of food insecurity — from 10% before the COVID-19 pandemic to 27%, according to the latest University of Washington and Washington State University research on food insecurity and food assistance in the state.
Food insecurity, like homelessness, was a relatively small, insignificant problem, until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
Like a tsunami, these social problems swamp us when they hit us, but we can, and need to, prepare for them.
Tacoma has more than 1,000 beds available for people experiencing homelessness — some of the beds are restricted for specified categories of people; individual men, women, veterans, families or couples.
An additional 180 beds were expected to be available by the end of 2021.
Is that enough or anywhere near adequate?
Waiting until problems become overwhelming before we address them is the opposite of what we should be doing.
Every eviction, every homeless individual, is a tipping point into a cascade of related and abstractly related consequences we can all feel, but can barely define.
Whether it is petty (or not so petty) crime, open drug use or garbage in our streets, homelessness impacts us all.
In short, homeless people need what we all need – a sense of what they CAN do, not what they can’t do, where they CAN be, not where they can’t be.
No one deserves, or wants to be homeless; when people can’t take care of themselves because of age or disability, a healthy society takes care of its own.
And long before any “sweeps,” places need to be set up to take in those people.
A recent Tacoma-based example of the best intentions going sideways is perhaps best explored by this report by KNKX on the demise of the Merkle Hotel: https://www.knkx.org/south-sound/2021-12-09/extra-time-money-werent-enough-in-a-city-that-left-merkle-tenants-behind.
The Merkle Hotel was never a “nice” place or even a permanent home, but it was shelter.
And it was the last one of its kind in Tacoma.
Questions and comments on Tacoma area homelessness and policies can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.