TACOMA, Wash. – A homeless crisis across Western Washington is challenging many to come up with options to get more people off the streets and into permanent housing.
Problems like affordable housing, mental illness and addiction are making cities like Seattle and Tacoma declare homeless emergencies.
The King County medical examiner says at least 133 homeless people died in 2017 -- an all-time high. And in the greater Tacoma area more than 1,300 people were found living on the streets during 2017's point-in-time count; 14 percent of those people had children.
It's a problem that doesn't come with an easy solution but one Tacoma church hopes by opening up their doors as a temporary homeless shelter a few more people will get off the streets.
The pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church believes the space and facilities inside could give families struggling through homelessness a real chance to escape it.
“The church is uniquely called to do this work,” said Pastor Dr. Eric D. Jackson Sr.
His church has hosted a homeless shelter before and Jackson says he’s seen firsthand how families can struggle.
“Had children who couldn’t read,” he said, “And as a byproduct of the shelter, we were able to ask our members to step up, tutor some kids and now those kids are reading today.”
Nearly 80 people will soon call the church gymnasium home. There’s a day care, a commercial kitchen and showers on-site. Jackson hopes his church can bring dignity and compassion for families surviving on the street.
“We believe we’ve been called to serve our community. It’s part of our vision, mission statements, we say we will serve all people with love and compassion,” he said.
In 2017, the Tacoma City Council updated its laws that waived some permitting fees and could make it easier for churches and other nonprofits to open shelters.
City officials say Bethlehem Baptist is so far the first church to apply for a permit – but Jackson says he’s more concerned about making sure his neighbors have a safe place for their kids to sleep.
“I just don’t know the story of other churches, I don’t know their capacities, I don’t know what they’re limitations are, so it’s hard to speak about why they’re not doing it,” he said. “So I’m just celebrating the fact that we’re available to doing it.”
The shelter is expected to be big enough to house 75 people, or roughly 15 families.
Jackson says he expects to open their doors by the end of January.