Wednesday, December 14, 2011

There's No Place Like Homeless

Right after I mostly retired a few years ago, I volunteered to work one day per week in a large homeless feeding kitchen. My experiences there led me to start attending the monthly meeting of the Tacoma-Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness – a group of approximately 50 providers of services to homeless people. A couple of years ago, I was asked to participate in the HUD-mandated Homeless Continuum of Care (CofC).

There is probably a CofC in your county. It develops comprehensive plans to end homelessness and makes recommendations to the county and to HUD about funding housing development and support services. It is an interesting place to do community psychology. I have participated in policy development, consolidation of three different county plans to end homelessness (each required by a different funder) into one integrated and more holistic plan, review of grant requests, and governance of the CofC. Currently I am serving as chairperson.

Like your state (unless you live in North Dakota or Alaska) the State of Washington is experiencing a major fiscal crisis. Our state has no income tax and the voters have repeatedly rejected efforts to authorize one. We rely upon sales taxes and “business and occupation” taxes to finance state government. Both of these are markedly sensitive to fluctuations in the economy. Our social safety net is in shreds as state government revenues keep falling.

I have been especially concerned about how people who are homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness can survive as their sources of income are eliminated. I have been advocating for some time that our county needs to do contingency planning for a dramatic increase in homeless individuals, couples, and families with children. As part of that process, I began to gather statistical data about the probable extent of the emergency in Pierce County. I wrote an editorial, subsequently published by our local newspaper summarizing what I learned. You will find it here. Later I learned from the Washington Department of Labor that from January through October of 2011, 70,643 Pierce County residents have exhausted their unemployment compensation. We have no idea how many spouses and children are impacted or how they are faring, but we can predict that a significant number are at high risk of homelessness.

Pierce County now is starting a contingency planning process to try and mediate our pending homelessness emergency. Involved will be Pierce County and City of Tacoma staff members, Associated Ministries, hopefully an architect/planner, informal advice from the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management, and me.

What are the lessons for Community Psychology? Willingness to get involved will be welcomed by your community. A holistic overview is valuable, although the scope of the need may feel truly overwhelming. Collaboration with other professions in search of solutions is fundamental. Many human service providers share our values. Gathering and aggregating data is very helpful. Informing the general public about both scope and consequences is fundamental, and local news media are willing to help accomplish that.

Al Ratcliffe, Ph. D
Tacoma, WA

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