About 115 young people are homeless on any given night in Pierce County, Washington, but there were slim options for housing help until recently. Just ask Robert and Kaitlynn Walthall.
Robert drives a forklift for Amazon, but his full-time salary isn’t enough for him to afford an apartment for his family. For more than six months last year, he and his wife couch surfed along with their 1-year-old daughter, Hana.
That changed when they landed a spot in November at Arlington Drive, a newly opened apartment building for young adults who are experiencing homelessness, transitioning from foster care or are on the threshold of homelessness. The Arlington Drive building is part of an innovative project spearheaded by the Tacoma Housing Authority in partnership with Community Youth Services and the Social Impact Center of the YMCA of Greater Seattle.
“It’s pretty unique to have a housing authority take the leadership to address youth and young adult housing and do it in partnership with providers, especially at this scale,” said Kim Justice, the executive director of the state’s office of homeless youth.
The scrappy port city of Tacoma, less than an hour south of Seattle, made headlines in December as the country’s hottest housing market. Homes were selling in six days for 58% above their list price. The average home price was 17% higher in November than last year at the same time, according to a report by Redfin.
At Arlington Drive, the Walthalls pay $757 for a two-bedroom, which is a figure calculated based on his income. When they were looking, Robert said, they couldn’t find a two-bedroom for less than $1,200 a month, and even the cost of a one-bedroom, when factoring in groceries and a car payment, “just wasn’t enough” on his salary.
Tacoma’s housing problems are so acute that an activist group, Tacoma Housing Now, has taken dramatic direct action to highlight the issue — including occupying an empty elementary school and a motel and pitching a tent in the middle of a busy intersection. The group said at least five people died of exposure last year living outside in Tacoma.
Meanwhile, despite four years of planning and millions of dollars in city, county, state and private funding to get it up and going, Arlington Drive’s continued success could be in danger. The governor’s latest budget proposal would not fully fund the project, leaving it $3 million short of what’s needed for the next two years. The state’s part is only 40% of the cost. the remaining 60% comes from the housing authority, the city, the county and private philanthropy. Administrators are hopeful the Legislature will ultimately provide the needed funds.
Arlington Drive’s young adult apartment building has 58 units that can house up to 130 people between the ages of 18 and 24. About a third of the residents have babies, like Robert and Kaitlyn, who are both 21 years old. The apartments currently have a waitlist of 100 people, and administrators get calls every day asking about availability from other counties and even from neighboring Oregon.
While the project is a regional one, it is expected to have an impact statewide. Data from the Y’s King County programs showed that 20% of those receiving services had a last known residence in Tacoma or Pierce County. Mirra said 17% of the young people admitted to Arlington come from outside Pierce County.
The Tacoma Housing Authority supplied the land and assembled the resources to build Arlington Drive, and serves as the property manager. The public agency provides rental subsidies, and the rent they collect generates operating revenue. The executive director of the Housing Authority, Michael Mirra, said he was inspired to create housing for homeless young people by the success of the Authority’s McCarver Elementary school housing program. That project created stable housing for families enrolled at one of the state’s schools with the highest rates of poverty, where the annual student turnover rate was as high as 179%.
There weren’t many models for the Arlington project, particularly because of its scale, so Mirra said he found experienced service providers to partner with the Housing Authority for the design and construction.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the housing project was completed and opened ahead of schedule and under budget. “The pandemic made it harder,” Mirra said, “but also more urgent.”
The Y Social Impact Center has 12 people on staff at the building for young adult residents. They provide services as soon as the tenants move in, including housing case management, and mental health and chemical dependency services.
“It’s a place they can call home for as long as they need it,” said Mark Putnam, executive director of the Y Social Impact Center. “But we’re working from day one on their transition out of it. We’re helping to build stability and skills.”
The Walthalls’ new neighbors at Arlington Drive were brought to the project’s youth crisis center, a separate building on the same campus that opened in July with 12 beds. Community Youth Services works with the youth there, who range from 12 to 17 years old. They can stay up to 60 days while workers explore family reconciliation and placement options, including with relatives or foster care. The center has a licensed clinical therapist on hand and behavioral and health services as well as provides the teenagers with school support.
“We’re like an emergency room,” said Derek R. Harris, chief executive officer of Community Youth Services. “We provide immediate safety and stability triaging, and we develop immediate care and long-term care plans that require collaborating with a lot of people.”
Harris said his organization expects to serve at least 300 young people a year, and once coronavirus restrictions are loosened, it may reach as many as 400. The organization has a 91% rate of success in discharging youth to safe and stable housing after 12 days, Mirra said, which made them attractive partners.
One teenager who arrived this month found her way to the crisis center after her dad was hospitalized with COVID-19. She’s currently studying online and getting good grades, but she’d run away from home in the past. In an interview that Community Youth Services provided to The Imprint, she told staff that she’d like to get along better with her dad. She’ll remain at the center until it’s safe for her to live with her father again.
"Arlington Drive gives youth and young adults a second chance at adolescence and adulthood, at an education or an occupation, and a family and life without impoverishment, abuse or fear," Mirra said. "That's what it's doing, and it's doing it at scale."
The Walthalls, who now meet monthly with a caseworker, feel lucky to have gotten a spot at Arlington Drive.
"Mind-blowing," said Robert, of his first impression. "It was amazing how nice everything was. The floors, the sinks — everything."
Kaitlynn, who is in a technical college studying cosmetology, agreed: "Everybody was so welcoming as soon as we got here."