Higher sales tax eyed for homeless interventions

Jan 5th, 2023 | By | Category: News

A tax increase in Pierce County to address homelessness is being considered at the same time the county is preparing to spend $35 million from the state to provide housing for certain homeless people.

The County Council plans to hold discussions until March 7 about a proposed one-tenth of 1 percent increase of its sales tax. If eventually approved, the increase would generate about $103 million over the next four years to pay for affordable housing and related services for the homeless.

The county currently is spending approximately $40 million a year on its homeless crisis response program and needs to spend an additional $117 million annually to fully fund the system the next five years, according to the council.

County officials have said the county must build 50,600 housing units by 2044 to meet housing needs, and that the private marketplace can’t develop the housing without being subsidized by the public.

The proposed sales tax expansion would cost taxpayers 10 cents for every $100 they spend on taxed items. Groceries, medicine, and certain medical and hygiene supplies would be exempt from the tax.

In addition to focusing on more affordable housing, the revenue can be used on other efforts “to help support people who are at a chronic risk of becoming homeless,” said Councilman Ryan Mello. “We need this approach. To end homelessness, we have to prevent it from happening in the first place.”

Meanwhile, the county, the city of Fife, and homeless-services providers have $35 million from the state to help move people living on state highway rights-of-way into more stable situations, with permanent housing the goal. The money, which was awarded last October through a state program that focuses on removing homeless encampments near state highways, means 300 additional shelter beds will operate for at least two and a half years, officials said. The beds will be available through a variety of shelters, including ones offered through the county, Fife (which offers hotel vouchers), and non-profit community organizations.

On a related note, the county is recruiting volunteers for its annual homelessness survey in January. The volunteers will help interview people experiencing homelessness during the Point-In-Time Count on Jan. 26-27. The research is used by government and community programs to understand why people become homeless, respond to their needs, track trends, and identify where people sleep.

Volunteers must be over 18 years old, have access to a smart phone, and attend a training session in January. They can apply online at piercecountywa.gov/PIT, where information is also available for donating blankets, hats, socks, gloves, hygiene kits, and hand warmers for the homeless. Donations can be made through Jan. 23.

The personal circumstances that may lead to homelessness are varied, and “we are thankful for volunteers who are willing to learn more about homelessness and help us with this important event,” said Heather Moss, director of the county’s Human Services Department, which organizes the count.