PIERCE COUNTY CONNECTED Spotlight: Helping Neighbors Have A Home To Stay Safe
As the public health response to COVID-19 in Pierce County escalated on March 13, 2020, United Way of Pierce County and Greater Tacoma Community Foundation partnered for an aligned philanthropic response to emerging community needs. Together, they launched the PIERCE COUNTY CONNECTED fund, seeded with $1,750,000 from GTCF.
As of April 30, 2020, 246 local and regional foundations, businesses, and individuals have contributed a combined $6.8 million to PIERCE COUNTY CONNECTED. So far, $3.1 million in rapid response funding has been distributed to 87 local entities, agencies, and organizations.
Through this aligned philanthropic response, county organizations, agencies, entities, and organizations are sharing the needs and opportunities that are emerging in the community as a result of COVID-19 and the necessary public health measures to address it. This is the second of a series spotlighting areas of need that have been surfaced through PIERCE COUNTY CONNECTED.
“This pandemic is teaching us that housing is necessary not only for individual health, but for public health. If you don’t have secure housing all other outcomes are in danger.”
The “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order has helped Pierce County and Washington state flatten the curve of COVID-19 transmissions. However, staying home isn’t an option for some in Pierce County, and it’s getting harder for many as necessary public health measures impact employment.
For more than a decade, housing prices in Pierce County have continued to rise at a much faster rate than the wages of most residents. From 2012-2017 the median rent for a one–bedroom apartment increased by 49%, while the increase in average median household income was only 4.4%.
As a result of this disparity, accessing affordable housing and shelter has become increasingly difficult. Over 40% of renters in the City of Tacoma alone are classified as “rent burdened”, meaning that they are paying more than 30% of their income on rent, and over 12,000 Pierce County residents experienced homelessness in the past year.
Now, in the face of a pandemic that requires citizens to shelter in place, the need for access to adequate housing in our community has become more evident than ever. “Housing is limited, and the shelters are at full capacity in Pierce County,” said Bryan Flint, Executive Director of Sound Outreach. “Because so many have had their incomes decrease over the last two months, many of those that were struggling to pay rent are now unable to.” Even with the eviction moratorium in place, many are concerned about repaying what they owe and possibly being evicted once it’s over.
United Way of Pierce County has seen evidence of the increased need through calls to their 2-1-1 helpline. According to Norinda Rosario Yancey, VP of Community Impact “There are more people needing help with rent, mortgage, and motel vouchers right now. We are noticing more calls from people sharing they never anticipated being in the position of needing to ask for help. Callers share feelings of fear and being overwhelmed.”
Shelters around the area face the unique challenge of meeting an increasing demand while at the same time incorporating recommended social distancing measures; and making space for residents who have been exposed to COVID-19. Amanda Paschall, Senior Director of Community Engagement at Tacoma Rescue Mission said they’ve had to get creative about finding space. “We’ve turned our dining room into a sleeping space to help with social distancing. We’ve also partnered with Bellarmine to use their gym space to accommodate more guests as well.”
While the need for affordable housing isn’t new, COVID-19 highlights why access to sustained, safe shelter is more than just a challenge for the individuals experiencing housing insecurity. “This pandemic is teaching us that housing is necessary not only for individual health, but for public health, said Michael Mirra, Executive Director of Tacoma Housing Authority. “If you don’t have secure housing all other outcomes are in danger.”
“Now, more than ever, the successful coordination between agencies in Pierce County can make the most impact.”
During the COVID-19 response information is constantly changing. With the 2-1-1 Helpline, United Way of Pierce County has served as a coordinated entry point for support services and programs in Pierce County.
2-1-1 connects residents to Housing/Shelter resources including:
- Rent assistance
- Move-in/deposit assistance
- Affordable housing
- Basic needs
“Our Housing Navigators are active in advocating for families experiencing homelessness. Often this means things like coordinating services with partner providers such as working with the services providing vouchers, government income supports, and property managers to all come together as a team to open the door in securing a home for a client. Now, more than ever, the successful coordination between agencies in Pierce County can make the most impact.”
Pierce County Human Services Homeless Programs supports a coordinated entry system for families and individuals experiencing homelessness.
In addition to the shelters available through the coordinated entry system, there are over a dozen emergency shelters that provide temporary shelter for women, men, youth and families who are experiencing homelessness for a variety of reasons.
Along with providing a safe space, many of these shelters provide additional services to support guests in finding long-term solutions for housing.
“At Tacoma Rescue Mission, our New Life Program for both men and women provides recovery from substance abuse, prevention curriculum, job skill training, adult basic education and high school completion”
Rental Assistance/Financial Support
In order to follow social distancing guidelines, organizations like Sound Outreach have been able to provide rental assistance, financial counseling, and employment coaching virtually.
“Our focus is to help keep individuals in their homes so that they do not have to experience homelessness. We have provided resume assistance, and job search assistance to many individuals that have lost employment due to the COVID 19.” – Bryan Flint
In addition to their budget for homeless service funds, City of Tacoma contracted with a third party to provide rental assistance to Tacoma households who are experiencing a financial impact due to the COVID 19 pandemic. The fund provided enough money to support 1,200 households in need.
Applications were accepted for the week of April 29-May 6, but the city is looking for ways to offer further assistance for more households. “Understanding that the needs of our community will continue to grow we are evaluating other revenue sources through state and federal grant opportunities to provide additional resources to our community. – Erica Azcueta, Homelessness and Household Stability Program Manager
How You Can Help
“Let’s take this pandemic as an occasion to be creative, and not just get through it, but come out stronger.”
Many of the shelters across the county have a variety of volunteer opportunities for individuals willing to help. United Way created this page, designed to connect volunteers to a variety of opportunities countywide.
City of Tacoma Homelessness and Household Stability Program Manager Erica Azcueta is also a resource for more information about volunteer opportunities related to housing and shelter support.
Due to the nature of this crisis the need will likely continue, so local organizations are asking people to be prepared to volunteer 6 months to a year from now as well.
Contact your city, county, state and federal officials and let them know that support for housing and shelter programs is important to you.
Michael Mirra of Tacoma Housing Authority offered the following talking points to share with government officials:
1) This pandemic has reminded us how much help our housing system needs. Local Housing Authorities, Shelters, and social service organizations need more money to address the needs in their communities
2) Remember that some of our nation’s most important investments for its future have come during crisis. Social Security, Public Housing, and the Mortgage Insurance Program, for example were established as a result of the Great Depression.
General operating support for shelters and other organizations that provide resources for housing and basic needs will be critical to their ability to continue helping the increasing number of residents in need in the weeks and months ahead. You can look up the organization or shelter you want to support and give directly to them. Many have online donation platforms or can accept checks in person or through the mail.
Many of the shelters also have need for a variety of supplies that can be purchased and sent to their location. Tacoma Rescue Mission, for example has this wish list on Amazon so community members can give from home and provide some of their urgent needs. You can contact a shelter near you to find out what supply needs they may have as well.
If you are a landlord or property owner, another way to give is by being flexible and working with renters to reduce rent payments or create payment plans that give them time to maintain housing and shelter while they work to get back on their feet.
The PIERCE COUNTY CONNECTED fund supported many local organizations providing housing and shelter supports. Find a list of funded organizations, agencies, and entities at this page. Follow the links to learn about the organizations and contribute directly.
Michael Mirra offered one more thought for people looking to make a difference for those experiencing home insecurity, “Let’s take this pandemic as an occasion to be creative, and not just get through it, but come out stronger.” Although there is a large and rising need, working together can help Pierce County come through COVID-19 stronger than before.