There were lines that set off alarms.
“Most people will not want to shop where there is a known congregation of homeless people,” asserted a recent opinion piece by Brenda Valentine, president of the South Tacoma Business District Association.
The op-ed, written on behalf of the businesses owners from the area, had a straightforward purpose: to state, unequivocally, that placing a homeless drop-in center for youths and young adults, and a 50-bed overnight shelter specifically for young adults, in the heart of the business district in the midst of a revitalization is a very bad idea.
That’s precisely what the city of Tacoma and Pierce County, in a partnership with Community Youth Services, hopes to do at a long-vacant storefront on the corner of South 54th Street and South Tacoma Way.
For at least the past three years, according to Nadia Chandler Hardy, an assistant to City Manager T.C. Broadnax, the city has been looking for a suitable location to open a permanent youth homeless shelter. Currently, Community Youth Services operates a temporary overnight youth shelter at Tacoma’s Beacon Center, which served more than 250 people last year. The idea is to combine a new drop-in day center and the city’s overnight youth shelter into one space.
Among other criteria, Chandler Hardy said, the building needed to be large and close to bus lines. She told me the city has looked at “a number of sites” during this time, and finding a suitable location has been “quite the challenge, to say the least.”
On Thursday, after a series of public meetings and a 30-day comment period — which largely turned into an opportunity for business owners and residents to voice fears similar to the ones expressed in Valentine’s letter — the city’s Planning and Development Services Department approved a conditional-use permit to sign off on the South Tacoma Way plan.
The decision cites the established ability of Community Youth Services to effectively operate such a facility and the established need for youth homeless services in Tacoma. It also contends the proposal meets the city’s goals for health, human safety and social services expressed in the Tacoma 2025 strategic plan.
The approval comes with two conditions — requiring Community Youth Services and the city to meet with the business district four times a year and mandating that the first floor of the building be used for a “retail and/or social enterprise use.”
It’s hard because the neighbors had very valid concerns. But we don’t know if any of those will come to fruition. There are a lot of maybes, and we’re tasked with really trying to figure out what we know is going to be an impact.
Planning and Development Services Department’s Jana Magoon
“It’s hard because the neighbors had very valid concerns. But we don’t know if any of those will come to fruition,” said Planning and Development Services Department’s Jana Magoon. “There are a lot of maybes, and we’re tasked with really trying to figure out what we know is going to be an impact.”
“I think we can make it work with the community,” added Kurt Miller, executive director for Community Youth Services’ Pierce County operation.
Ultimately, I believe that’s true. We’re talking about kids here, not the hardened population associated with places such as the Tacoma Rescue Mission or Nativity House.
Still, expect an appeal of the decision from the South Tacoma Business District Association ASAP.
And a long and contentious path forward.
But back to Valentine’s op-ed. On first read, it comes off like unadulterated NIMBYism.
The South Tacoma Business District isn’t against a youth shelter, it promises. It just doesn’t want one here.
I admit to being critical of the argument. If you cover homelessness long enough, you come to expect fervent pushback from neighborhoods where homeless-related services are located, or even proposed. The tone and predictability of these cries grows tiresome, at best, and infuriating more often than not.
Still, I reached out to Valentine last week to make sure I wasn’t selling the South Tacoma Business District Association short.
“We’re not opposed to the youth shelter,” she told me.
Valentine then went on to explain that, for most members of the business district, the main concern is the effect that putting a youth homeless shelter smack-dab in the middle of their business district — on a prime stretch of South Tacoma Way — will have on neighboring businesses, or businesses that might be considering opening there.
Move it a block west, or a block east, whatever the case may be, the environment is different. I don’t have a problem with a shelter. Please, don’t think that I do. Take it off South Tacoma Way, in the core. … It’s unfortunate, because it’s a great concept, and it’s necessary.
Brenda Valentine, president of the South Tacoma Business District Association
“It’s that location,” she told me. “Move it a block west, or a block east, whatever the case may be, the environment is different. I don’t have a problem with a shelter. Please, don’t think that I do. Take it off South Tacoma Way, in the core. … It’s unfortunate, because it’s a great concept, and it’s necessary.”
It’s possible that, here, Valentine — and the South Tacoma Business District Association she represents — has a point. Having worked for years to pump economic life into this neighborhood, there are unknowns involved in placing a youth shelter there and some risks in the move.
In a perfect world, there would be another place to put it. In this, Valentine is right.
But if there’s not another place to put it?
“We have spent the last 15 or 20 years trying to revitalize South Tacoma. We don’t have the best reputation down here,” Valentine said. “Our duty and our goal has been to try to bring in business and then keep those businesses on the street.
“Are you going to bring your family down here (if a youth homeless shelter moves in)?” she asked.
“No, you’re not.”
If the youth shelter does open on South Tacoma Way — which, to be certain, is still an if — there’s the challenge for all of us. And especially folks like me, critical of arguments like this one.
Prove them wrong.