Point In Time Survey: Spending the Day With Tacoma's Homeless
- Point In Time Survey de-briefing occurred last week on Wednesday, February 10th, 2016
- Annual Point In Time Survey occurred January 29th, 2016
- Preliminary rough estimate of 23% increase in unsheltered surveys in 2016 compared to 2015 (duplicates have not been removed yet making this estimate unofficial)
Point In Time Survey: Spending the Day With Tacoma’s Homeless
by Chelsea A.
For the thousands of people experiencing homelessness and living in our county, it’s more than just a struggle to live from day to day in such a cold-to-the-bone, wet-all-of-the-time environment. It’s a constant battle simply to stay alive. For the hundreds of volunteers and employees working with these people on a regular basis, it’s a constant frustration of never having enough resources to be able to house, support or supply everyone. The annual Point In Time Survey is a doorway to find solutions.
Training the Volunteers
It was a typical rainy and cold January 25th Monday night in Tacoma when a large group of us volunteers gathered at the Pierce County building near 38th and Pacific Avenue. The doors were propped open and a hand-written sign read, “Point In Time Orientation.” The room was full to the point where multiple people were standing as our lesson began. Valerie Pettit beamed at the front, undoubtedly excited to have so many turn out in support of the event she is responsible for organizing.
The majority of the volunteers belonged to some sort of local organization currently working with homeless people: REACH Center, Nativity House, the Mission, Coalition to End Homelessness, Associated Ministries and various Pierce County employees. The rest were people who visit tent cities weekly to deliver food and supplies, or people who simply wanted to end homelessness in any way possible.
The Day of the Survey
January 29th was the day of the Point In Time Survey count across the county. When I arrived at the Nativity House for my 11-hour shift, the room was already packed as people gathered for breakfast.
I gathered handfuls of incentive items and displayed them across my make-shift station: hand and foot warmers, shampoo, conditioner, razors, floss, toothpaste, gloves, hats and scarves. I only had a few of each item. Two hours into the volunteers shift and we were already running out. Luckily, Valerie arrived several times with a box full of incentive items that were sure to entice, including coats and clothing items. My pile grew 10 times as large and almost instantly after every delivery I had a line forming at my desk.
Most people begrudgingly took the survey because they needed the items I was dangling in front of them. It seemed cruel but served the purpose of getting them to participate. Without these items as incentive we would have undoubtedly accomplished nothing.
Throughout the day I spoke to many people with mental illnesses: schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, agoraphobia. There were several people who couldn’t even bring themselves to speak to me or anyone else, they were so encumbered by the disease they were battling. One gentleman asked to fill out the form on his own, writing the word “stolen” in response to every question. I asked him what had been stolen from him and was met with various profanities. Another woman spoke to the voices she was hearing as we filled out the survey together, adamantly telling me she had not been diagnosed with any kind of mental health problems at any point in her life. She came back many times throughout the day, picking up more items each time.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t help those individuals who couldn’t communicate or who were barely able enough to come to the Nativity House for a hot meal. I tried handing out supplies to them anyway, but they didn’t trust me enough for that either. In most cases I was able to get most people to at least take the survey in whatever way they could and accept the incentive items.
Stereotypes of Homelessness
Overall we handed out dozens of coats, items of clothing, toiletries, various things to help them stay warm–and we listened. That’s all we could do, and for some people that’s what they wanted even more than the things we were passing out. Valerie said during our volunteer orientation, “These people are avoided like the plague on a daily basis. We look away, we walk past, we ignore their attempts to ask for help – whether it’s just a little change or a cigarette.” Having someone acknowledge their existence and treat them like a human being meant more to them than anything we could have given them. I lost count how many times I heard something similar to, “Thank you for listening, it’s really made me feel better.”
It’s while we listened to their stories that we realized just how wrong the stereotype of “choosing” to be homeless is.
A middle-aged man, not much older than myself, was receiving disability benefits, but that didn’t cover the cost of his rent, utilities, and the expensive medications he needed just so he wouldn’t be consumed in pain.
One couple had been living in a rented home their entire lives, their children now grown with families of their own. When the husband, the sole bread winner, was laid off from his job, they applied for Section 8 assistance. Their landlord refused to take it–along with every other landlord they approached.
A widow told me how she had raised her family, had been an inspiration to them and her community until the day her husband passed away. She had no work experience or skills to land a job and eventually lost her home and had to live in a shelter with her four children.
A 25-year-old man I met, a year older than the youth housing cutoff, was a veteran who had lost everything due to his health problems. He was experiencing his first week of homelessness and we made recommendations for safe places others had mentioned for sleeping through the night. Like so many we spoke to he spent that cold and rainy night outside.
Another couple–both had lost their jobs–were living out of their car with their young baby. So desperate for even temporary shelter, they planned to move to another city just to find it.
I asked each what their biggest struggle was. While many mentioned getting the basic necessities, others were more affected by the way people treated them. One elderly man recounted, “People treat us like we did something wrong and that’s not right for everyone. I’ve been working full time my entire life and I never did anything wrong, never even went to jail or did drugs. I paid my taxes. After 13 years working for [the same company] they told me thank you for your hard work, but we’re making cutbacks and we have to let you go. It’s as simple as that.”
The only difference between these people and those of us who have homes or steady incomes is happenstance. It doesn’t take much for circumstances to take away everything in the blink of an eye. And when it does, you’re left struggling just to feed yourself and find somewhere to sleep.
I watched my little brother go through the same exact struggles as some of the people I interviewed. He was diagnosed with bipolar paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 25. After members of my family and I tried taking him in, he choose to be homeless. He was listening to the instruction of the voices he was hearing. He cycled in and out of institutions that refused to do anything other than release him with medications which he refused to take once he stepped out of their front doors. After a year of homelessness and at the age of almost 26, the voices won out over the love of his family and he took his own life.
This count may not be able to reach every homeless person and it may miscategorize those staying with family or friends due to the government’s definition of homelessness. But it does provide a rough estimated of the number of people experiencing homelessness along with demographic details. This number helps us understand how many beds we need, shelters, food banks, and local resources. It may not be a perfect system and there will always be people falling through the cracks, but it is a huge step in the right direction.
For me, this is the first year I volunteered in the survey but it will be one event which I will come back for each year until there are no more people to count.
What You Can Do To Help
- Donate clothing, hats, gloves, scarves, hand/foot warmers, or toiletries for next year’s Point In Time Survey
- Volunteer to participate and survey people experiencing homelessness in next year’s Point In Time Survey
- Donate items, funds or your volunteerism to the Nativity House or other local shelters
- Attend fundraisers this Spring for local nonprofits who support shelters and people experiencing homelessness