Published on May 6th, 2015 | by Rachel Ervin


Homeless in Tacoma, part two: moving beyond reaction

Read “Homeless in Tacoma, part one: Waiting in line”  and Part three: our invisible youth.

When I was eight years old, I went shopping with my mother on Christmas Eve. I grew up in the Mojave Desert, where the weather is harsh by any estimation, and the winter temperatures dip into freezing with piercing winds. If you are a homeless person stranded outside on a Christmas Eve in Barstow, California, there is a good chance you will not see Christmas Day.

On Christmas Eve of 1987, a homeless man sat on a bench in front of the Vons grocery store. His long gray hair was yellowed and matted, and his beard made him look like a sad and discarded Santa. My mother and I passed him on the way into the store; he was clutching a paper bag and held an old radio by his side.

We picked up the kinds of groceries many Americans shop for on Christmas Eve: Christmas dinner fixings, meat, bread, milk, and a few luxury purchases like artichoke hearts in olive oil. On our way out, the man was still there. His eyes were cloudy and he may have been drunk, and he most likely suffered from mental illness.

But still, my mother reached out to him.

She asked him if he had any food, or a place to stay for the night. He shook his head, I think not comprehending fully what she was saying. She asked if she could get him a room and give him some food. We spent the next hour or so finding a motel for the man and giving him most of our groceries.

She didn’t ask him if he was drunk. She didn’t ask him where he was from. She didn’t ask him what mistakes he had made to land him homeless on a bench in front of a grocery store on Christmas Eve. She just gave and she gave freely.

I have had many responses from my article on one family experiencing homelessness in Tacoma. Most have been overwhelmingly positive, and some have been of the kind that happens when people cannot fathom empathy–the kind that says somehow, some way, those in dire straights are to blame.

I did my best to relay the thoughts and feelings and frustrations of this family navigating the process through their lens.

I tried to capture what it meant to be living in a van with two small children while you waited on a list that you didn’t fully understand why nor how people were chosen from it.

I tried to explain how getting caught in a system this wide and deep and complex is difficult to climb out of; it takes a lot of self-advocating, outside help, and grit (and having a degree in social work might be helpful, too). And many people don’t. And some do.

And like Char said, “sometimes it’s not their fault.” And as others have implied, sometimes it is.

But still.

It seems that much of the American response to homelessness and poverty is to shift blame. To say: if they made better choices this wouldn’t have happened. To say: if only they didn’t do drugs, or waste their money, or had a better education, or picked better partners, or stopped having kids, then—and only then—would they be worthy of our charity and compassion. In other words, when they no longer make mistakes, then we will feel like it’s ok to help.

When I see this pervasive attitude displayed, I feel equal parts sadness, hopelessness, and rage. Because these attitudes–while we think that they are ours to share, and everyone is ‘entitled to their opinion,’–affect real change.

We live in a culture that is more concerned with whether or not we’re being “taken advantage of” than of actually offering help. And it is reflected in our laws. Our policies as a nation –from the war on drugs to the war on terror to the policing of black lives –have created a system of inequality made easy to fall into and nearly impossible to rise out of. We criminalize the homeless to push them out of sight and send the message time and time again, that personal property trumps civil rights.

As a person born and raised in America, I can understand how this attitude developed. I can understand it, but I don’t endorse it.

I grew up in impoverished towns with low education rates and high drug addiction rates. I have witnessed the cycle of addiction and poverty firsthand. I have seen drugs and abuse rip apart families and decimate towns. I understand how manipulative a person desperate for the next high can be; how priorities can be upended when you are trapped in the depths of disease. And these are just a few examples of the many that people offer in order not to help.

But still.

I feel the answer is not to withhold, but to give and give freely. I think the answer is to stop creating policies of fear and instead create safe communities where people can overcome and thrive. Is this idealistic? Sure. But I don’t think it’s impossible.

As many have probably read, Utah’s homelessness rate has dropped a whopping 91 percent since 2005 through implementation of a “housing first” initiative. Here in Tacoma, we put housing first principals into practice through programs like permanent supportive services like the Nativity House apartments.

The idea of it is that first and foremost, people need a stable place to live. Not in a shelter, not in transitional housing, but in an actual unit that they can call home. In order to have a successful program, agencies must remove the barriers to housing that tended to exist before housing first initiatives, such as sobriety, employment, or a criminal history.

At least in Tacoma, the eligibility requirements for permanent supportive housing are that you must be chronically homeless (homeless for over a year), and have a disability. Once you are housed, then you will receive additional help suited do your needs. In other words, housing first, and the rest, hopefully, will follow.

It many cities these programs have has worked, like in Seattle, and has significantly decreased the cost of housing of the chronically homeless simply because they do not suffer the same injuries that would occur while living on the streets. Things like frequent hospital visits from spending most of their time outside and criminal infractions from camping in an urban environment, panhandling, or sleeping in front of businesses are no longer an issue. They have a stable address where case workers can find them and it increases the likelihood of people participating in mental health treatment or job trainings.

In Tacoma, the first step in getting this help is to contact Access Point 4 Housing. There, a housing specialist will connect the client with the appropriate housing service to help the family or individual get back on their feet. Or, like in the case of Char and John, will direct them to a rapid re-housing agency. The process can be lengthy, and takes patience, but the end result is stable housing.

This is not a partisan issue—I learned to give freely before judging from my very conservative, very Republican mother. It’s only a matter of a shift in perspective.

Rather than ask what people need to do first to earn our help, we just give the help that is needed, first. And ask questions, later.

My hope is that as a society, our first reaction to homelessness and poverty changes from “what did they do to deserve this?” to “how can we help, now?” I hope that maybe our compassion can one day trump our need to feel right, and that our nation will strive to put humans first.

The next installment of the Homeless in Tacoma series will focus on the REACH Center, an organization that is making great strides in helping homeless youth in Tacoma, right now, and we’ll examine plans for a new youth shelter.


Featured image of Schuster Parkway in 1976 by Stephen Thompson from

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About the Author

Rachel Ervin

Co-Managing Editor, freelancer of everything, UWTacoma alumna, parent, partner, lover of beans. You can follow her thoughts on feminist weather patterns @RacheErvKorbski.

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