UNSHELTERED Critical Issue—Safety & Health

These things become the norm: that some homeless people die of cold on the streets is not news. In contrast, a ten-point drop in the stock markets of some cities is a tragedy. 
~Pope Francis  

Twenty Years of Hate, a report from the National Coalition for the Homeless (2020), outlines 39 lethal attacks and the 44 non-lethal attacks on unhoused people that occurred in 2018 and 2019 throughout the United States. An earlier report, No safe street (2016), found that in the previous 17 years at least 1,657 people experiencing homelessness were the victims of violence perpetrated for the sole reason that they were unhoused at the time. This number included 428 men and women who lost their lives.
Cause or Effect or Both?

  • Youth, single adults, and families who become homeless are often survivors of domestic violence. For many, it is the primary cause of their homelessness. 
  • Homelessness increases vulnerability to violence and victimization
  • Extreme need contributes to survival sex, the practice of trading sex for food, a place to sleep, or other basic needs, or for drugs.
  • Unsheltered people often have no access to safe drinking water or sanitation services, and encampments are commonly established along the sides of streams and rivers.
  • Poorly situated encampments contribute to environmental hazards including erosion, loss of native vegetation, debris accumulation, loss of wildlife habitat, destruction of community commons/green space, and bacterial contamination of waterways that are close to campsites or fed by storm drains that receive greywater from camps.
  • Unsheltered people suffer from exposure to environmental hazards including soil and water contamination, air and noise pollution, and exposure to severe weather events. 
  • People who are homeless have higher rates of illness and die on average 12 years sooner than the general U.S. population.
  • Poor health is a major cause of homelessness

Beyond issues of vulnerability to violence and lack of basic needs, homelessness is closely connected to declines in physical and mental health; homeless persons experience high rates of trauma and health problems such as HIV infection, alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness, tuberculosis, and other conditions.

What Can We Do About Safety and Health?

  1. Create more safe places to sleep (with access to services, hygiene facilities and garbage receptacles): 
    1. “Safe parking” and “safe tent” sites, provide options for individuals to legally park their vehicles or sleep in tents.
    2. RV parks specifically for people who live full-time in RVs 
  2. Create more safe places to carry out everyday activities 
    1.  Urban Rest Stops offer safe and welcoming places where unsheltered people can come and use restrooms, laundry facilities and showers. 
    2. Day Centers, like New Hope and CCS Family Day Center, offer similar services for specific populations
  3. Offer easily accessible medical care including street medic programs. Demand affordable universal healthcare as a key strategy for prevention and mitigation of homelessness.
  4. Learn about – and help raise public awareness about-  safety issues that face unsheltered people. Advocate for measures that reduce violence and victimization
    1. Participate in National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day which takes place each year on the longest night of the year, the winter solstice (usually December 21st).
    2. Join Chaplain Ed Jacobs for memorial services in memory of people who died homeless in Pierce County 

More about Safety and Homelessness 

Ideas for Pierce County? Bring them to the Tacoma/Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness – let’s solve this.

UNSHELTERED Critical Issue—Disability & Accessibility

DISABILITY is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities.
~Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990  

According to a 2018 federal report by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, “it is estimated that on any given day nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of individuals experiencing homelessness (86,962 of 369,081 individuals) are people with disabilities.”

Some challenges faced by people with disabilities who are experiencing homelessness:

  • Physical disabilities that require the use of a mobility aid (such as a wheelchairs or walker) make it difficult to live in a tent, a car, and even in many shelters.
  • Chronic conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and anemia are often inadequately controlled and may go undetected until after permanent damage has occurred.
  • Many suffer from  invisible disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder, depression, and learning and thinking differences such as ADHD and dyslexia. Invisible disabilities also include chronic pain, fatigue, and dizziness. When the disability is invisible, it often goes unaccommodated.
  • Cognitive impairment is both a risk factor for, and perpetuator of, homelessness (research report).

There are countless other barriers faced by people who are unsheltered and each obstacle is even harder to overcome when disability is a factor. Remember the last time you provided care for someone you love who was temporarily or permanently disabled. Now, imagine doing all of that in a tent – without running water, or heat, or electricity. And don’t forget the freezing rain; we ARE (after all) in Tacoma and heading into winter.
What Can We Do About Accessibility?

  1. Know, and follow, accessibility requirements. See the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) website 
  2. Modify problem areas (whether or not legally required to do so) to achieve “barrier-free” public spaces and shelter options. 
  3. Promote a national home modification program through the National Housing Trust Fund to create additional low-income, accessible home-sharing options. 
  4. Create adequate shelter space for medically fragile people and additional funding to assist people in monitoring and managing their chronic conditions.
  5. Help educate others about “invisible disabilities” and the need to make accommodations for these.

More about Disabilities and Homelessness 

UNSHELTERED Critical Issue—Extreme Weather

July  of 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded at Sea-Tac. Unsheltered people in Pierce County had little protection from the heat wave and must now “gear-up” for the cold winter months ahead. The pandemic reduces our options for adding emergency warm spaces to sleep. Large congregate shelters that once added extra mats in the winter can no longer do so without increasing the risk of Covid for everyone who lives and works at the shelter.____________________________________

Living outside in winter greatly increases risks of cold-related Injuries and death. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless (2010*), 700 people experiencing or at risk of homelessness die from hypothermia annually in the United States. 
Unsheltered people are especially vulnerable to:

  • Frostbite
    • Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation (removing the affected body part).
  • Hypothermia
    • While hypothermia is most likelyw hen the ambient temperature becomes very cold, it can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water. In rainy weather, when clothing and survival gear become soaked, uncontrollable shivers and hypothermia are likely outcomes.

CDC  Prevention and Treatment of Hypothermia & Frostbite

What Can We Do About Extreme Weather?
5 Tips for Winter Planning (from the National Coalition for the Homeless)

  1. Increased Outreach – Talk to people who stay on the street to help you locate camps and common sleeping areas.
  2. Stock up on Blankets and Warm Clothing – Wet clothing will not keep anyone warm and can lead to greater risk of illness.
  3. Emergency Transportation – Does your city have vans or shuttles available to transport people to shelters that may be across town?
  4. Day Centers – Make sure there is somewhere people can go, at least when the temperature falls below 40 degrees F.
  5. Low Barrier Nighttime Shelter – Any past bans or other restrictions should be waived on nights when the temperature is lower than 40 degrees F.  If needed, people who are violent or under the influence can be separated, so long as they can remain warm.

More About Extreme Weather

* I was unable to find more current stats- please send any fresher data you have on this and I’ll update the post
Ideas for Pierce County? Bring them to the Tacoma/Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness – let’s solve this.
Additional information and graphics for the Safe Sites 4 All Campaign are available here.Please help us dispel myths by sharing these messages with others.

UNSHELTERED Critical Issue—Sweeps

“I don’t always call them sweeps. Sometimes I refer to them as ‘enforcement actions’ or ‘cleanups.’ But I think when you are moving people around who have nowhere to go because people don’t want to see them, then ‘sweeps’ can be accurateIf I was the administration, I think I would be less concerned about what they are called and more concerned about the impact it has on people and communities.”

~Cathy Alderman, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.



Critical Issue #2: Sweeps:  the forced removal of people using tents or tarps to shelter outdoors from a specific area.

Why are Sweeps a critical issue?

  • There is no sanctioned campground to move to
  • Being “moved on ” from one hostile location to another creates trauma and ever greater obstacles to mental and physical health, employment, education and any other movement toward stability and well being.
  • Campers often form supportive communities that are difficult to reproduce after a forced dispersal 
  • peer support and community are critical survival tools, especially for people with few resources
  • sweeps cause interruptions and loss of support from service providers and other community members
  • Encampments serve as a place to store important personal possessions that may be lost forever during a sweep.
  • unsheltered individuals have the same property rights to their personal possessions as any other person in Pierce County
  • these rights still exist even when items are temporarily left unattended in a tent.
  • Sweeps are an expensive and unproductive use of  municipal resources
  • Carrying out the task of evicting people from their homes (no matter how humble) will create trauma for any but the most callous government employees as well

What Can We Do About Sweeps?

  • Know the relevant guidelines and legislation:  CDC guidelines and Martin v. City of Boise
  • Advocate with local elected officials and other leaders for no sweeps without appropriate alternatives
  • Join the effort to End Street Homelessness in Pierce County by 11/1/2021
  • Oppose false dichotomies. We can maintain the public commons AND provide safe public space for unsheltered people to sleep
  • We can respect the rights of housed people, businesses, government employees, and people without houses all at the same time

More About Sweeps

Ideas for Pierce County? Bring them to the Tacoma/Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness – let’s solve this.

UNSHELTERED Critical Issue—Storage

Imagine you had to leave your home overnight. What would you take with you?

Why is storage for unsheltered people a critical issue?

  • Unsheltered people have possessions that are valuable and worth protecting.
  • People experience discrimination, and are sometimes targeted, for having their belongings with them at all times. 
  • People’s belongings (including medicine and medical devices) are often vandalised, stolen, or lost.. 
  • Loss of official documents like social security cards, driver’s licenses and marriage certificates create additional barriers to services and housing.
  • Belongings taken during homeless sweeps are not always stored and may be impossible to retrieve
  • Keeping outdoor survival equipment secure can stop people from pursuing employment and other opportunities that can lead to housing
  • Warming and cooling centers can save lives in extreme weather – but – people may choose to stay outside and secure their belongings so they have a place to sleep that night  
  • Hauling belongings everywhere and maintaining hypervigilance is physically and emotionally exhausting.

What Can We Do About Storage?

Ideas for Pierce County? Bring them to the Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness – let’s solve this.

MYTH: People who are homeless are violent, dangerous, and/or are lawbreakers

This week’s mythbuster is from the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance

Myth:  People who are homeless are violent, dangerous, and/or are lawbreakers

Fact: While a larger number of people experiencing homelessness have substance use disorders than the general population, a person who is homeless is no more

likely to be a criminal than a housed person, with one legal exception: camping ordinances. But of course people who are homeless break that law merely by being homeless. A person who is homeless is less likely to perpetuate a violent crime than a housed person, and is in fact more likely to be the victim of a violent
crime, especially if they are a homeless woman, teen, or child.

Who should be afraid of whom?

In their latest report, Vulnerable to Hate: A Survey of Bias-Motivated Violence against People Experiencing Homelessness in 2016-2017, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) documented at least 112 anti-homeless attacks that occurred in the United States in 2016 and 2017 and analyzed 1,769 reported acts of violence committed against homeless individuals from 1999-2017. Of the 1,769 violent acts, 476 victims lost their lives as a result.

And here in Tacoma in December 2020: 2 charged in fatal attack on Tacoma homeless encampment

MYTH: Only those who ‘earn it’ have the right to shelter

“This huge jump in mortality due to heat is tragic and something many people thought they’d never see in the Pacific Northwest with its mostly moderate climate.” 
 ~Acting State Health Officer Scott Lindquist, MD, MPH.. from a Washington State Department of Health news release, July 8, 2021___________________________________________________________________________________
Myth: Only those who “earn it” have the right to shelter
Fact: Shelter is a basic human need. We require protection from freezing temperatures, sun, wind, and rain. Human skin and organs are damaged from exposure to extreme temperatures. Only air and water are more critical to sustaining life than shelter. Breathing air, drinking water, and putting up barriers to the weather are not earned privileges; these are requirements for survival and basic human rights.
In Fact: Homelessness violates the principle of human dignity enshrined in articles 1 and 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in theInternational Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

More on shelter as a basic need and a human right

MYTH: Race has nothing to do with homelessness

Myth:  Race has nothing to do with homelessness
Fact: African-Americans make up 13 percent of the general population, but 21 percent of people living in poverty in the United States are black (1), African-Americans account for 40 percent of people experiencing homelessness — and half of homeless families with children (2).
1. US Census2. 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR), produced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. American Indians also are overrepresented in the homeless population. .
Local Research and Data

  • Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities (SPARC) Report on Pierce County, WA 
  • See attached data slide: Homelessness and County Population by Race compiled by Pierce County CCS data Manager, Henry (Hank) Nolls.

MYTH: It is impossible to end street homelessness in Pierce County by November 1, 2021

Myth:  It is impossible to end street homelessness in Pierce County by November 1st
Fact: Increases in homelessness are inevitable given the ever-growing income/wealth gap in the US. Solving this anytime soon seems unlikely. Street homelessness is another matter.
street homelessness. noun [ U ] us/ˈstriːt ˌhoʊm.ləs.nəs/ uk/ˈstriːt ˌhəʊm.ləs.nəs/ the situation when someone lives on the streets, with nowhere to sleep at night.

We can absolutely set up enough urban campgrounds and safe parking lots to ensure that everyone in Pierce county has a place to pitch a tent or park their vehicle home prior to the inclement weather that is predictable this winter. Emergency response teams quickly provide safe havens for entire communities throughout the nation during disasters. We can use those strategies to deal with the disaster that is homelessness too. 

If you don’t think homelessness is an emergency, please read on:

We can do this.

MYTH: Homeless people live in the streets

Myth:  Homeless people live in the streets.
Fact: About 50% percent of homeless Americans lived in shelters in 2019, according to HUD’s survey. Others do sleep outside or in locations not meant for human habitation. (State of Homelessness: 2020 Edition from the National Alliance to End Homelessness). But many “unsheltered” people live in vehicles.
According to the Vehicle Residency Research Program, “People living unsheltered come from all areas of our society, but for many a singular item can be identified as their primary resource and home – their vehicle.  In Seattle, “sleeping overnight in a vehicle” (or vehicle residency) is the largest category of unsheltered people, comprising over 30% consistently since 2001.” Seattle Vehicle Residency Research Program from the Seattle University Institute of Public Service. 

“While many communities across the U.S. struggle to develop brick-and-mortar shelters, vehicle residences are privately owned and occupied throughout American streets now. I believe that cities need to do more to assess the true number of local vehicle residents, to provide them with a place to park and access to vital social services.” from an article by Graham Pruss, research fellow Vehicle Residency Research Program.