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Forty-nine counted and volunteers suspect they missed up to another 100.

Nine volunteers on the Key Peninsula joined 300 others in Pierce County and thousands across the nation Jan. 25 to participate in the Point-In-Time count to collect data from homeless people. 

The PIT count indicated there were 25 people experiencing homelessness on the KP, 24 in Gig Harbor and one on Fox Island. 

“Part of the count includes KP with Gig Harbor zip codes, like Wauna, Lake of the Woods. That total count including sheltered and unsheltered is 49,” said RoxAnne Simon, community mobilizer for Safe Streets and a member of the KP Community Council.

Simon estimated that the Key Peninsula team interviewed about 60 people. “We know we counted more than 49,” said Simon. “But 49 as opposed to 1.5, is a start. This is a matter of identifying the need.”

“We were listed in the database as having 1.5 homeless people here, and I knew that wasn’t correct”

The PIT count, mandated by both the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development since 2005 and the Washington State Department of Commerce, takes place on a single day in January each year. Although Pierce County has conducted the count for over 20 years, 2019 was the first time there were enough volunteers to extend the count to include the Key Peninsula. 

Simon had attended regular meetings since October of the Tacoma Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness, a group of individuals and organizations working to serve people experiencing homelessness. 

At those meetings she heard about the PIT count and also learned the KP had never participated. “We were listed in the database as having 1.5 homeless people here, and I knew that wasn’t correct,” she said. 

According to Simon, in order to get the resources to provide services, the Key Peninsula needs to confirm there are people experiencing homelessness on the KP and have sufficient information to understand their situation.

For the KP to participate in the count, at least 10 volunteers had to sign up and train. Simon brought information about the count to the community council and began recruiting volunteers through word-of-mouth, the Key Peninsula Business Association and Facebook. 

Valeri Knight, Pierce County program specialist with Community Services Programs-Homeless Programs Unit, trained the volunteers across the county. It is not mandatory for homeless individuals to participate in the interviews and the county knows that not all homeless people are identified. Nevertheless, Knight said, the surveys provide critical information about who is experiencing homelessness and why. The data can reveal trends and help providers plan and adjust services. 

In 2018, only 1,700 individuals were counted while the county served 10,860, she said. Over the same period, more than 4,023 of those people found permanent housing, a 163 percent increase over 2013 according to the county’s homeless management information data. 

The county acknowledged that the PIT count fluctuates every year due to factors like the weather, but the survey data provides valuable insight. For example, most respondents in 2018 said economic factors or family problems pushed them into homelessness, rather than mental illness or substance abuse, and few respondents came from outside the county.

Those results were echoed in the 2019 findings, released April 8 (see below).

Most respondents in 2018 said economic factors or family problems pushed them into homelessness.

Volunteers found 1,486 people across the county experiencing homelessness: 629 were living outdoors, in cars or in abandoned buildings, and 857 were in emergency shelters or transitional housing units. 

Knight explained that the count includes people who have spent the night in shelters and those who have not. Sheltered homeless were counted through the county database system. Unsheltered people were contacted in a variety of ways, including tables at meal sites and food banks, street outreach at sites with a high number of homeless, and at event locations including Project Homeless Connect and REACH Youth Center. Experienced volunteers and county staff also conducted overnight outreach at homeless encampments. 

The surveys are administered via a phone app and include questions about where those who are homeless slept the night before, where their last residence was located, what may have contributed to their loss of housing, and any disabilities the individual may have. It also asks how long the individual has been homeless, age and demographics, and whether the person is a veteran or a survivor of domestic violence.

While the rate of homelessness across the county decreased from 2005 to 2013, it has since been growing because of high rents, low vacancy rates and slow wage growth, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

Lisa Larson, who helped coordinate the team, said she participated in the count “because I know there is a need for gettinghelp and resources to those who are homeless.” Another participant, Irene Torres, agreed. “I wanted to get information so we can get more resources here,” she said, adding that all the people she spoke with were very open about their situations. 

The Key Peninsula team worked from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. They interviewed people at the food banks and then went to locations that had been identified by KP fire department staff and other sources as sites where homeless people were living. 

“We did run out of time and would have liked to reach more people,” said Simon. “It just got too dark to continue. But we’ll do it again next year and we’re going to start early on recruiting people.”

For more information about Pierce County programs to assist the homeless, call 253-682-3401 or go to www.piercecountywa.gov/3715/Homeless-Programs

2019 PIT count: Causes of Homelessness

24% due to underemployment or low income
15% could not find affordable housing
14% were victims of domestic violence
9% were evicted
8% lost their job
7% experienced a family crisis or separation
7% reported “other” reason
5% experienced health or safety issues
4% due to substance abuse
4% experienced mental health issues
3% had a medical problem

As of mid-April, 2,590 people are homeless in Pierce County

53% are people of color
45% are members of families with children
44% are female
8% are veterans
7% are unaccompanied youth under 25 years old
50% spent less than 43 days in an emergency shelter
50% who enrolled in the county rapid rehousing project were housed within 28 days

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‘Unseen Territory’—Helping the Homeless of Key Peninsula