The number of people experiencing homelessness in Pierce County increased 37% between 2015 and 2021, according to the county's Homeless Point-in-Time Count survey conducted last January.
The one-day, in-person survey found 1,762 adults and children living unsheltered. Of these, 24% were chronically homeless, often suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues.
According to the Pierce County Homeless Management Information System, which records anyone who has experienced and received aid for homelessness, whether for a day or a year, the number is closer to 11,000.
The total is thought to be higher in rural communities, like the Key Peninsula, where it can be more difficult to find people or convince them to utilize services.
“We have a larger population than people realize, but we have just a few individuals that are more in the limelight,” said KP Fire District 16 Public Information Officer Anne Nesbit. Calls to the department related to the chronically homeless have not significantly increased in the last year, she said.
“They come out here because they want to be left alone and there’s more space to live under the radar. I can think of four or five camps that are active in the area and there’s probably more, and they hike into Home or Key Center or Lake Kathryn Village because that’s where the resources are,” she said.
“At the library, people come in to use the bathroom, but the impact isn’t above or beyond how anyone else uses them,” said Tim Sage, the Key Center Library manager. “There are a few regulars we know, and I have had two or three conversations reminding them of the rules, sort of a ‘wellness check,’ but nothing that we could not handle ourselves.”
“It’s gotten worse,” said Lisa Larson, who until Sept. 30 was manager of the KP Community Council office in the Key Center Corral. She cited incidents of vandalism and littering, people injecting drugs, or sleeping out overnight on the property.
“We were trying to help (one person) for a while, we got her a room in a motel in Port Orchard,” Larson said. “We were waiting for Kitsap County to do their thing because Pierce County wanted her to move to Tacoma to get services, and she didn’t want to. Then she got tired of waiting and left, so she’s back in the woods again.”
“I see some that are regulars,” said Carla Parkhurst, who has been coordinator at the Angel Guild thrift shop in the corral for 11 years. “There’s one in particular who doesn’t bother us at all. He’ll come in and look through the books, do his shopping, and I see him walking on the highway. He’s a very nice man; he’s just homeless.”
But Parkhurst and others have called 911 when people get agitated or are arguing or fighting.
Sgt. Darren Moss, the Pierce County Sheriff Department public information officer, said they receive one or two calls a week from the KP related to homelessness, slightly up from last year.
Deputies can deal with trespassing or criminal behavior, assess the need for mental health evaluation, and call a designated crisis responder to evaluate and provide transportation to a shelter. If a business owner or employee identifies a person who has been a problem, the deputy can serve them with a trespass notification, informing them they can be arrested if they come to that property again.
Some of the businesses in Lake Kathryn Village in Wauna told the KP News about people living in the nearby woods or in cars in the parking lot.
Anita Fjermedal, a manager at the Food Market, said she thought the number of homeless there had increased slightly in the last year. She called the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department a few times, but often the individuals have left by the time a deputy arrives. Sometimes there are panhandlers and shoplifting has been a problem, she said.
A manager at Cost Less Pharmacy said they have had some issues, and the focus is keeping customers and employees safe. She worried about the safety of the homeless people, who are mostly familiar faces. “Every homeless person has a different story and a different need.”
“It is really hard,” said Dan Whitmarsh, pastor of Lakebay Community Church. “We had a lady living in her car in our parking lot and we offered three or four times to help her get out of living in her car, get to a shelter, and she made excuses every time. She moved to another parking lot.”
Church members also found two men camped out in the woods on its property. One accepted a ride to the Tacoma Rescue Mission; the other just moved his camp.
“I don’t know if they don’t want the hassle,” Whitmarsh said. “The KP has a lot of dark corners where you can hide while Tacoma doesn’t. It might feel safer.”
Whitmarsh and his congregation do help where they can, he said, and he has referred people to agencies that provide transitional shelter, but that usually means Gig Harbor or somewhere further afield.
The KP has a few services for people in need (see sidebar).
“When I first came out here, I joined this new group, the Gig Harbor-Key Peninsula Homeless Coalition,” said Pastor Anna Bonaro of KP Lutheran Church. “A lot of what we’re doing is bring different resources together, so it’s not just one (group) trying to tackle homelessness on the KP, but it’s a group of people saying we’ve got these resources that can help.”
“There are so many little things that this church does to meet those needs,” she said, “but a lot of the hardship is just reaching those people who need it, especially the chronic homeless. Transportation is a huge roadblock. And then you see the ripple effect: it’s hard to put resources out here, then it’s hard for people to get to the resources. You start to see how much of a spider web this is; we have all these different things that we’re trying to work on.”
“There are agencies that have resources, but we can’t get them to come out here,” said Nesbit, the KPFD public information officer. “We get a lot of walk-ins who are really sick; we transport them to a hospital or refer them to a clinic in Tacoma. We’ve got somebody that needs housing, the agency says ‘OK, get them to Tacoma.’ Our overarching issue is that we don’t have the resources. Even if the county has them, people will not cross the Purdy spit, either way.”
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