Background / Challenge
As in many communities along the West Coast, homelessness has reached a crisis level in Pierce County, pushing the issue to the forefront of public discourse. During the late 2010s, the number of people living without stable housing increased despite a record economic expansion and larger attention to, and investment in, addressing the crisis. The global COVID-19 pandemic and the associated recession have exacerbated—to an extent that is still not fully understood—many of the risk factors that lead to homelessness. This is the challenge shared by Pierce County and other communities on the West Coast: large homeless populations and especially large unsheltered, chronic homeless populations.
The complex and multifaceted nature of homelessness presents unique challenges to government agencies. Broadly, individuals experience homelessness episodically (one or more brief episodes) or chronically. These two distinct patterns are associated with myriad different causes, effects on individuals, and potential solutions; there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Traditional homeless services, such as emergency shelters, provide valuable support to individuals and families in need, but are relatively expensive solutions to episodic homelessness and have not proven to reduce homelessness in the long run. At the same time, long-term rental assistance has been shown to reduce homelessness for some populations, but has much less potential in constrained housing markets like those in cities along the West Coast.
While the challenges of addressing homelessness are great, the consequences of inaction are far greater. Increasingly large and visible homeless encampments raise concerns about public health and safety. Such unsanctioned camping also imposes costs on local jurisdictions tasked with enforcement and site cleanup. Even more pressing, however, is the humanitarian crisis—experienced directly by thousands of individuals and families experiencing any amount of time without a stable home—playing out on the streets of communities like Pierce County.
“Homelessness is a multi-faceted issue and no two stories into or out of homelessness are alike. We consider this to be an economically-focused look into the issue because it does not dive into relevant social and health determinants.” — ECONorthwest
In response to these issues, Pierce County undertook a comprehensive review of the services currently available to individuals experiencing homelessness. As part of this review, ECONorthwest evaluated the funding sources and programs serving people experiencing homelessness in Pierce County. This work included an analysis of the costs and characteristics of various alternatives to traditional indoor emergency shelters, a comprehensive analysis of funding for homeless services, and an assessment of service gaps based on ECONorthwest’s estimate of the resources necessary to expand the County’s current portfolio of services to ensure shelter for all individuals experiencing homelessness. The ECONorthwest consultant team brought a non-traditional perspective to the analysis, allowing County staff to understand homelessness in the broader context of an exceptionally tight housing market in Pierce County and across the West Coast. The analysis and final report, presented in a comprehensive and digestible format, will be used by the county as part of their Comprehensive Plan to End Homelessness.
- Decades of housing underproduction created a climate of inequity in housing that will take further decades to reverse. The county needs to manage, rather than expect to solve, the crisis. Homelessness will continue to be an issue until accelerated housing production can catch up with housing need.
- Successfully mitigating the problem will require expansion of some current programs and retooling of others, as well as the implementation of new strategies.
- Providing appropriate services from the Pierce County’s current portfolio to every individual experiencing homelessness in the county would more than double the current budget for homeless services.
- The power of the clearest evidence-based intervention—long-term rental assistance, which improves housing stability, family stability, health, and job/educational outcomes—is limited in a tight housing market where finding an open unit is challenging.
- Although expanding shelter capacity seems an obvious solution, every dollar spent on emergency beds is a dollar that could be spent on programming with stronger evidence of improving long-term housing outcomes (e.g., long-term vouchers).
ECO’s Recommendations for Pierce County:
- Investigate innovative, lower-cost alternatives to the proven-effective Housing Choice Vouchers.
- Expand shelter infrastructure, including the new class of outdoor shelter alternatives that includes tiny house villages, sanctioned encampments, and safe vehicle parking areas.
- Address concerns from the homeless population that include family barriers to shelters (separation of partners/children), safety and security, tightly-controlled entry and exit times, sobriety requirements, and the “benefits cliff” anxiety that comes with the threat of expiring short-term support.
- Manage unsanctioned encampments systematically. As long as unsheltered camping persists and Pierce County’s ability to develop new affordable capacity is limited, unsanctioned camping should be managed as part of the system.
- Use flexible funds to encourage better caseworker conditions, since overworked, burnt-out caseworkers who can barely afford their own housing can’t be effective advocates.
- Expand upon existing efforts to embed race and equity in improvements in the system.