County and Coalition Embrace ‘No Wrong Door’ Approach to Ending Homelessness

Service providers are joining forces to address the unique challenge of homelessness on the Key Peninsula.

Tina McKail, KP News

An RV and two custom truck trailers set up shop in the parking lot of the Key Peninsula Civic Center June 25. The first trailer held three shower rooms. The second trailer held four commercial washer-dryer units. The self-contained mobile unit was open for business free of charge throughout a hot summer day.

Along with fresh meals and racks of clean clothes, tents and tables were arrayed around the shower and laundry trailers with representatives standing by from healthcare providers, mental health services, local food banks and shelters.

It was the KP’s first visit from the New Hope Mobile Resources Response Team, and one step in a collective effort to bring services to people experiencing homelessness on the peninsula.

The mobile unit is a new phenomenon in Pierce County. It is the brainchild of Paula Anderson, director of the Puyallup-based New Hope Resource Center. At the onset of the pandemic, she asked for a grant to deliver basic services to unincorporated Pierce County. Five days later, the county got her started. Everything in the trailers was donated by businesses.

The county has adopted a “no wrong door” approach to its coordinated entry system for people experiencing homelessness. At the mobile unit, this means a New Hope staff member is in the RV with a laptop. They are usually someone who has experienced homelessness themselves, so when a freshly showered and clothed person comes in looking for other services, the staff member can talk to them without judgment and put their information directly into the county’s tracking system. In that environment, the person is often ready to think positively about next steps.

“We like to say we’re hope and dignity on wheels,” Anderson said.

Homelessness on the Key Peninsula can be hard to track. Recent county statistics for everything west of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge put the number of households experiencing homelessness at 148, with a third of them chronically homeless. This includes those who are unsheltered as well as those couch-surfing or living in vehicles. But the statistics may be an undercount since they come from the county Homelessness Management Information System, which can only accurately track numbers if service providers enter data about the people they see. And many people are never seen.

“You go where you’re safe,” said Valeri Knight of the Pierce County Human Services Community and Homeless Programs. “In the City of Tacoma, typically that’s a lit area, sometimes on specific streets. Whereas on the KP, you’re safe in a lot of places, and you can hide in the woods.”

“There are no large encampments (on the KP),” said Bob Vollbracht, chair of the Gig Harbor Key Peninsula Housing-Homeless Coalition. “They are ones, twos, threes, fours in isolated areas all over the place.” Connections to the homeless community come through the local food banks and a handful of other nonprofits.

“We are building a safety net,” Vollbracht said. Together with Chandra Hallam of Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church and Key Peninsula Community Manager Gina Cabiddu of Children’s Home Society, Vollbracht is a driving force behind a new coalition working to unite efforts to combat homelessness across the Gig Harbor and Key peninsulas.

The new coalition, which over the course of a year has gathered support from over 100 members, seeks to raise awareness and connect resources that are often far apart.

Hallam is one of those resources. She works to connect families with housing they can afford. “A lot of people have lost housing,” she said, describing a local family that came to Communities In Schools of Peninsula for help. Although agencies were able to provide the family with enough money for a deposit and first month’s rent, the only rental they could find was in Tacoma, uprooting the children from the Peninsula School District. The situation is unstable, Hallam said, because the area lacks rentals that people can afford.

“Everyone has a specific trauma that comes with their homeless experience,” Knight said. “Part of what we do, and what we’ve learned in the last year, is to really just listen and respond accordingly.”

For the county’s part, the pandemic offered a chance to reset its approach.

In the past the county attempted to centralize all homeless services. Now it relies on community partners, knowing that people will turn up to ask for help in the places they feel most comfortable, like churches or community centers. The county is investing in relationships with those groups and supporting them with resources. “We’re going to open a lot of doors,” Knight said.

A new urgency was given to the county’s work in May, when the county council passed a resolution requiring an emergency response to homelessness. Using pandemic stimulus funds, by November the county must create sufficient shelter space to accommodate all unsheltered residents. The resolution also requires updates to the county’s long-term comprehensive plan, including identifying reasons why people cannot afford housing and offering solutions to prevent homelessness in the first place.

Currently that is a major concern for all of the organizations. “When the rent moratorium does finally go, there’s going to be another wave,” Anderson said. “We’re all dreading that.” She said that just telling people about the rental assistance funds already in place through the county for both tenants and landlords will go a long way to keeping people housed.

To Vollbracht and his new coalition, the visit from the mobile unit is a promising step toward a much stronger network of services on the Key Peninsula. By coordinating efforts and educating community providers, he said, those experiencing homelessness will be able to get the wrap-around care they need.

“I won’t say it’s controllable, but it’s potentially manageable,” Vollbracht said. “We’ll build a base that can handle the larger influx of homelessness that we know is coming.”