By Lyn Topinka (USGS) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

November 6, 2017; News Tribune

More than 1,300 people were identified as being homeless in the greater Tacoma area during the 2017 point-in-time count. The City of Tacoma declared homelessness a public health emergency and is implementing a “three-phase approach” to contend with the crisis. Lawmakers also passed ordinances restricting where and how long homeless people could live in certain locations, such as in cars and camps. At the same time, the city’s plan to establish transitional sites is meeting with resistance from neighbors.

A lot is unclear here. The city claims to use a Housing First model—widely seen as a “best practice” in the field— and lists Greater Lakes Mental Health Care and MDC (Making a Difference in Community) as implementation partners. Interestingly, the city’s website gives a much lower estimate of “more than 200 chronically homeless individuals living on the streets and in encampments.”

But clearly efforts are falling short, and the Tacoma community is struggling to identify solutions. The declaration of a public health emergency does slash red tape to get basic services to the homeless more quickly. Reporting for the News Tribune, Matt Driscoll writes that the city council passed an ordinance last month modifying regulations to make it easier for faith-based organizations to host homeless shelters. However, not only has no one opened a temporary shelter, “according to Brian Boudet, Tacoma’s planning and development services manager, no church or other nonprofit has even applied for a permit to do so.”

Interviewing city and faith community leaders, Driscoll gives everyone the benefit of the doubt by simply suggesting the city has not done enough yet to engage and support prospective faith community partners.

Boudet and Tiegan Tidball Bradbury, a systems analyst for the city who has been working with local faith-based organizations to help encourage participation, remain hopeful.

The same goes for Associated Ministries Executive Director Michael Yoder, whose organization has been working with the city to help get the word out. While Yoder acknowledges that last month’s ordinance didn’t open the floodgates of churches lining up to host emergency shelters, he believes there’s legitimate interest from the faith community and a growing realization that churches can be part of the solution to Tacoma’s homelessness crisis.

The City of Tacoma is not the first city to engage faith-based institutions as partners in combatting homelessness. In New York City in 1982, then-mayor Ed Koch challenged religious leaders to respond to the rising crisis of homelessness. Peter Smith, an activist attorney and former city official, organized what became the Partnership for the Homeless. By the time of Smith’s death ten years later, Smith’s work involved a network of 14,000 volunteers and 400 shelters in New York City churches and synagogues providing shelter for up to 1,500 homeless people a night. This important work helped more than 4,000 people find permanent housing and it also supported soup kitchens and pantries.

Tacoma has made an initial investment of $3.4 million to its Temporary Emergency Aid and Shelter Plan. The city’s needs assessment and 2015–2019 Human Services Strategic Plan help provide a thoughtful framework and vision for addressing the needs of the city’s homeless. But clearly something isn’t working.

Tacoma’s Declaration of State of Public Health Emergency ends on December 31, 2017. The stakes are high for developing a more coordinated response. On the one hand, faith-based groups need to step up. Indeed, faith-based organizations in other cities have come under scrutiny for failing to respond in the past; for example, some attacked Joel Osteen’s 16,000-seat Lakewood Church in Houston for not opening its doors to evacuees from Hurricane Harvey. On the other hand, Tacoma also has to figure out why its homelessness response is faltering and do more than throw a “Hail Mary” pass to the faith community. In short, it is time for both city and faith leaders to come together, organize, and act.—Jim Schaffer