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Second-largest county in WA adopts new regional plan to 'end homelessness'

A tent and belonging in an unsanctioned homeless camp next to a basketball court in Pierce County.
Pierce County
Pierce County's 70-page plan outlines broad goals for achieving “functional zero” — a state in which, when someone becomes homeless, they have immediate access to shelter and housing.

Pierce County Council members have passed a regional plan to “end homelessness” in Washington state’s second-largest county, after years of cities and the county taking wildly different approaches at times.

The plan approved by council members last week calls for the county to set up a Tacoma-Pierce Unified Regional Office of Homelessness by July 2023. The new office would have “central decision-making authority” over funding and services.

Pierce County officials say in their plan that one mark of successful efforts to address homelessness around the country is a centralized, coordinated approach. In King County, a new Regional Homelessness Authority took over homelessness services for the county, Seattle, and other cities at the beginning of 2022.

Pierce County Council members said they would seek a consultant to help design the new office.

“For the first time, I think we are seeing partnerships and agreement across the community,” said Heather Moss, Pierce County’s head of Human Services.

Pierce County’s plan was crafted with input from representatives of Tacoma, Lakewood, Puyallup, Gig Harbor, tribal communities, service providers, and people with lived experience of homelessness.

"The county has worked with community partners in the past to help address the needs of our homeless population, but we've never had a true plan to end homelessness," Pierce County Council Chair Derek Young (D-Gig Harbor) said in a news release. "This is a unified approach created by people with lived experience, experts in the field, and service partners dedicated to finding homes for everyone."

The more-than 70-page plan outlines broad goals for achieving “functional zero” — a state in which, when someone becomes homeless, they have immediate access to shelter and housing. Those goals, in addition to creating a unified system, include preventing homelessness and increasing the amount of permanent housing.

In the next few weeks, the county will release a more detailed plan on how to achieve those goals, Moss said.

“This plan has legs,” she said. “But what we need to do is help it walk.”

Successfully addressing homelessness in Pierce County will cost an additional $117 million per year, on top of the $40 million the county already spends on homelessness, according to the plan. Moss said her office will come up with a funding plan by the end of the year.

Effectively dealing with homelessness could save the county $48 million a year by easing the burden on other systems, such as police and medical services, the plan says.

County Council members approved $9 million in funding for short-term initiatives that are part of the plan. Those include providing bus passes for people who are homeless, case management services, and establishing a shelter at a to-be-determined location in an “underserved” unincorporated area of the county.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.