On an early Wednesday morning, I walk onto the campus of the new Nativity House location on South Yakima. It is cold and drizzling; crowds of people huddle beneath a tarp outside of the hospitality kitchen, and a line stretches around the opposite building waiting for the food bank to open. Public school is in session – it’s well past 9 am – but still I see a boy who looks to be around ten years old clutching a woman’s hand in line. He isn’t allowed to venture into the Nativity House because it is an adult only space, and it becomes apparent to me why when I walk through the doors.
There are a lot of people in here. The kitchen can serve up to 300 and it seems close to capacity. Everyone sits at long tables and gather in groups. Within the first hour, two fights break out. It’s crowded, stuffy, and the smell is overwhelming at first. There seems to be very little security, perhaps one officer for the large room.
I am here to help survey adults for the annual Point in Time count – a tool used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to assess how many people are sleeping on the streets on one night during the year.
It’s a snapshot, and doesn’t capture the hundreds or perhaps thousands of others that fall outside of what HUD considers homelessness: unstable housing situations such as friends’ couches, overcrowded apartments, or abandoned buildings. Last year, the count identified over 1,400 people in Pierce County alone as homeless; 800 of those being single adults and the rest consisting of adults with children.
I sit at a table with another volunteer and a box of essentials behind us. We tape a sign to the wall that says, ‘Point In Time.’ The people milling about look skeptical but are drawn to the box’s contents: hats, gloves, shampoo. The most popular item is a reusable bag. The catch, of course, is that they have to take the survey in order to pick an item. It seems a little cruel to me, but I also know that it’s probably the quickest way to get a response. I ask people if they want to fill out the survey on their own or if they need help. Most need help.
Complete strangers sit down with me and answer questions about their age, sexual preference, if they receive government assistance, whether they have AIDS or substance abuse issues. It is intimate and sometimes uncomfortable. One man becomes angry with me, one man laughs with me the entire time, one woman cries after each question. After two hours the two of us have filled out over 50 forms with people who are experiencing homelessness.
“Let me take a look at that shampoo,” a man says to me, and laughs as he rubs a hand over his bald head. He is carrying a drawing pad and color pencils—I later learn that the Nativity House is the first and only place in Tacoma to provide an art therapy room for its guests. He is wearing a wool turtleneck sweater and wire-rimmed glasses.
“Where was the last place you had stable housing?” I ask him.
“Victorville, California, in 1996.”
“I grew up in Barstow,” I tell him, and he says he’s sorry. We both laugh and I think there has to be something better for this person. He tells me he has schizophrenia, and my heart breaks.
I leave angry, sad, and overwhelmed. Not angry about the conditions at the Nativity House – the newest and most comprehensive daytime shelter, kitchen, and permanent residency that Catholic Community Services has to offer in Tacoma – and not sad about the countless people working hard to serve the homeless community, but I am angry and sad that we live in a culture that allows so many of its citizens to end up here. Here, as in without food and without stable housing in one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
And so I begin my search to find out what it means to be homeless in Tacoma, and how all of these services and surveys and time spent waiting in lines connect.
Homeless, with children
It is mid-January and unseasonably warm for a Northwest winter. Still, for Char and John, the prospect of spending cold nights in their car, along with their two children, a daughter age 21 months and a four year old son is daunting. Without a stable home for over a year, they have spent every few months scrambling to find a place to stay.
They have lived with family, friends, and in a home wading through foreclosure. Now, with their resources exhausted, they are facing homelessness on the streets.
“People don’t realize how quickly hypothermia can set in,” Char tells me, “Honestly, I care more about my kid’s safety than my own.” But Char is concerned with her own safety, too. The saying goes that “everyone is one medical disaster away from homelessness,” and in their case, the saying rings true.
Their road to homelessness began over four years ago, when Char worked as a server at a popular spaghetti restaurant. She was the person you would call to cover shifts, she tells me, and was damn good at her job. When an illness she had been struggling with for more than a decade began to worsen, her first response was denial. “I would just push through it,” she said. She knew that once her hours slipped, she and her family would be in dire straits.
John had lost his job as a custodial supervisor at a hospital because his department was outsourced. They had just had their son. He got the call a day before returning to work from family leave.
Char’s health did not improve. She was out of work for months at a time, suffering from kidney infections and rare conditions like blood poisoning, meningitis, and cat-scratch fever. “I mean, who gets this shit?” she says. She needed a diagnosis but couldn’t see a specialist because no insurance would cover her pre-existing conditions.
They were hanging by a thread and managing to squeak by on John’s small severance package and meager help from the state when John fell down a flight of stairs and shattered one of his legs.
With all savings gone, they had to leave their apartment.
The waiting game
One of the hardest things about being homeless is how long one has to wait. You wait in line for food. You wait in line for shelter. You wait to speak to someone who knows where to go for resources like therapy or medical help. You wait and wait and wait. Waiting becomes a full-time job for someone who is doesn’t have a place to live. And if you can’t get where you need to be on time? Well, you just have to wait some more.
Char and John first reached out to Access Point 4 Housing in October 2014, but the first appointment available wasn’t until mid-November. Access Point is the centralized intake center for Pierce County that connects homeless people or those in danger of homelessness to the service provider that best suits their needs.
The first of its kind in Washington State, since 2011 it has helped people find the program they need with one phone call, as opposed to attempting to contact hundreds of agencies on their own. According to the 2012 Tacoma, Lakewood, and Pierce County Continuum of Care’s Plan to End Homelessness, “This has yielded better data on the demographics of those seeking assistance, and has underscored the dire need for affordable housing, education, employment, and other supportive services in our community.”
Unfortunately, for those seeking immediate shelter, it’s a crap shoot whether there is space available. In the case of Adams Street Family Shelter, Char and John place a call every morning at 8 am on the dot, to see if a spot has opened. If not, they will face another 24 hours on the streets.
Char and John have no luck getting into a family shelter with those phone calls.
The other hoop to jump through is that you must prove you are homeless with a “Certificate of Homelessness” to receive any services like rapid re-housing or transitional shelter. And, of course, this certification requires an appointment with a place like Access Point or a visit to a shelter.
Luckily, Char and John have transportation, and are able to find help and get their certificate at Open Hearth Ministries in Puyallup.
But it isn’t only Access Point that keeps them waiting. There are only six agencies in the Tacoma and Lakewood area that provide shelter or temporary housing for homeless couples with children. The rest primarily serve single adults, women with children, the mentally ill, and veterans. It is extremely difficult to be a two-adult homeless family with children in our city and get any swift support.
“I have exhausted the limited resources and enlisted the help of our pediatrician, the kids’ daycare director, our DSHS case worker, and our YMCA social worker. It boils down to limited supply and very high demand,” Char tells me.
A quick call to the Adams Street Family Campus –the Tacoma Rescue Mission’s family housing program –confirms what she says. They tell me that there’s no way to tell how long of a wait there can be for a family unit. It is all dependent upon a family’s entry date and how long their stay is: a couple of weeks, or much longer.
The end of the road
Char, John, and their children end up spending most of February in their van. For a couple of weekends they are able to crash on friends’ couches. Char tells me about tricks to stay warm in the car, like using Mylar on the windows and finding sleeping bags 10 degrees warmer than you think you might need. At night, an alarm will be set for every couple of hours, reminding them to start the engine for a few minutes of warmth. They can’t remove the passenger seats, so they fold up squares of memory foam mattress toppers from their old bed so that their children will have a soft spot to sleep. They curl up on the floor between the front and middle rows.
Char persists in calling every resource she knows while staying in the van. At one point, she takes up the task of calling and appearing at the agencies personally rather than relying on the Access Point caseworker. She is determined to get her family a safe place to live.
Finally, in early March, a small light of relief shines in. John lands a job as a dishwasher. He is looking into returning to school. They are referred to Helping Hand House, which places them temporarily in a unit in Sumner. After that, they can be placed in what is considered rapid re-housing, and are again referred to another agency –this time Network Tacoma—who works with landlords to help people with not-so-great credit, rental, and employment history find stability through housing. They pay their deposit and screening fees.
At the end of March they are settled into an apartment. It’s not in the greatest area, the walls are a battleship gray primer and Char can hear the melancholy sounds of Taps through the windows, but there is heat. And a refrigerator. And a place for her little ones to sleep without getting too cold.
They are still playing the waiting game, but there is hope now while they wait. Char is dealing with the notorious and labyrinthine bureaucracy of social security and the disability process, and is still searching for the cause of her severe autoimmune disorder that has been the cause of her illness for so long. But at least she now has medical coverage through the Affordable Care Act. And she tells me she has found a doctor that listens and doesn’t just think she’s crazy.
I ask her if she could give one piece of advice to people facing homelessness what it would be and she says, “I just want people to know that this could happen, regardless of whether they’ve done anything wrong. Sometimes it’s not their fault.”
And sometimes people don’t just slip through the cracks, but get lost while waiting in line.
Featured image of Tacoma skyline by Ryan Lowry