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State funding allowing more shelter beds in Pierce County to open before winter

The goal of the $40 million grant program is to move more people inside before the end of the year.

TACOMA, Wash. — It has been a year of pivoting for the Tacoma Rescue Mission between balancing providing crucial services for the city's unhoused residents and keeping them safe from COVID-19.

"It has been a crazy seven months," said Duke Paulson, the organization's executive director. 

The organization has used empty school space nearby for beds and turned their dining hall into a dorm for additional space to help with social distancing. All the meals served are now to-go style.

Still, they've had to cut down the number of beds available.

"Our capacity in our men's shelter, which would have been 190 to 200 this winter, will be cut down to about 90 just in our property because of social distancing," Paulson explained.

With winter approaching and the need for shelter increasing, the organization has some good news to celebrate: they'll be able to help more women.

At the end of April, the Washington State Department of Commerce began accepting applications for a piece of the $40 million Gov. Jay Inslee set aside for more shelters across the state.

"Communities get a certain a set amount of money based on a formula and they can bill up to $56 per day per bed occupied," said Tedd Kelleher, managing director of the department's Housing Assistance Unit.

Part of Pierce County's application was to open up a women's shelter at the Tacoma Rescue Mission, as well as a tiny home village, and a shelter in the eastern part of the county.

The goal is to house more people across the county in time for winter. The shelters must be open by December. It's a tight deadline on purpose as the goal is to get people inside and out of the elements.

"That was a direction we were given from the governor and the legislature," Kelleher said.

The cities and counties that apply draw up their own plans of how they would like to shelter their unhoused residents.

"It could be things like small structures, and sometimes tiny homes, it could be any number of things it has to be, whatever it is, has to pass through the normal approval process and meet health and safety guidelines that are the locally driven," Kelleher explained.

Paulson said the addition will more than double the county's ability to house women. 

"Our winter capacity will be closer to 70 women that will be able to shelter," Paulson said.

While this is news to celebrate, there are still bigger obstacles ahead.

With the eventual end of Inslee’s eviction moratorium, schools getting back into session thus taking away space for beds, the need to house more people increasing, all while trying to stick to state health guidelines. Paulson is concerned with the months to come.

"The current restrictions are just going to make it tougher, especially when the weather gets really miserable, to help with the volume we have," he said.

Kelleher said some money has already been giving to counties that have applied. In Pierce County's case, their grant should be finalized in the coming weeks.

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