When I asked Tacoma’s homeless services manager, Colin DeForrest, to name one thing that might help those living outdoors, in one of the city’s many encampments, that’s the answer he gave me.
What Tacoma needs to begin dealing with those who continue to live outdoors, despite the city’s efforts to provide support, services and all the shelter beds it can muster, are “places where an individual can go where they can have stability, and get out of this fight-or-flight mode, just waiting to be traumatized,” he told me.
My conversation with DeForrest came less than a week after officials from the state Department of Transportation, aided by city staff, police and outreach workers, cleared a large homeless encampment known as the Jungle, south of downtown Tacoma, under Interstate 705.
Outreach workers offered what they could. Direct housing, it’s worth noting, wasn’t really on the table. But, through a deal with the Tacoma Rescue Mission, they did have vouchers for some 30 shelter beds.
But in a camp that was said to have once exceeded 100 inhabitants, only three residents of the Jungle took the deal. Instead, many — if not most — sought outdoor refuge elsewhere in the city.
It was little more than a restart on a frustrating process DeForrest has referred to as “a twisted game of hide-and-go seek.”
These are the same people we’ve been moving around for years.
Tacoma Homeless Services Manager Colin DeForrest on those living in the city’s unauthorized encampments
Recently, I wrote about the futility of an approach to homeless encampments in Tacoma that does little more than push people from place to place. It was an effort borne out of mounting frustration.
Today, especially in light of Mayor Marilyn Strickland’s recent declaration that homelessness in Tacoma has reached a level of crisis that demands immediate action, I turn my attention to identifying at least one thing that might actually help, and to better understanding why those living in encampments might not be interested in a shelter bed.
Which brings us back to DeForrest’s call for stability.
While no one supports encampments being a permanent solution to Tacoma’s chronically homeless population, there’s also a growing belief — which DeForrest, informed by his day-to-day work, shares — that we’re doing more harm than good when we continually sweep encampments with nowhere to direct people to go.
DeForrest has long been a proponent of looking for “outside-the-box” approaches to Tacoma’s most challenging cases of chronic homelessness. He has advocated for some form of monitored, authorized encampments — creating spaces where those living outdoors can go, and stay, and then be strategically targeted by area service providers, while having access to basic necessities such as garbage removal, sanitation and storage.
He refers to such areas as “safe camping sites.”
“These are the same people we’ve been moving around for years,” DeForrest said of those who continue to live in Tacoma’s homeless encampments.
“Really, what they are is stability sites,” DeForrest continued. “The trick is to have a place for them to stabilize, and while they’re there they don’t get comfortable. The goal is to get them connected to services as quickly as possible on that site.”
While such an approach might seem counterintuitive to those who — rightfully — argue that no one should be have to sleep outdoors, to understand why our efforts haven’t worked, one must come to terms with why simply offering a bed at a shelter isn’t enough to entice everyone.
In other words, you’ve got to come to terms with how, exactly, only three individuals decided that a bed indoors at the Rescue Mission was better than sleeping outside, in a tent or makeshift shelter, in an abandoned field or beneath an underpass.
And then you’ve got to adjust.
“It seems like their behaviors are irrational to us,” Rescue Mission Executive Director Mike Johnson said of these decisions. “These are hard things for people to wrap their head around — that people would choose, even when given a guaranteed shelter bed, to not to use it.”
“It’s only when you understand that childhood abuse and neglect are the most predictive variables for adult homelessness,” he continued. “People have a toolbox for this tough life. They’ve grown up in tough lives, and they have a toolbox for this.”
It seems like their behaviors are irrational to us. These are hard things for people to wrap their head around — that people would choose, even when given a guaranteed shelter bed, to not to use it. … It’s only when you understand that childhood abuse and neglect are the most predictive variables for adult homelessness. People have a toolbox for this tough life. They’ve grown up in tough lives, and they have a toolbox for this.
Tacoma Rescue Mission Executive Director Mike Johnson, on those who choose encampments over a shelter bed
City Councilman Keith Blocker knows a thing or two about homelessness — having experienced it. Raised by a single mother in Philadelphia, by the time he was an early adult Blocker had spent time living on the street or sleeping on couches.
Drawing on his life experiences, he says part of Tacoma’s response to homelessness has to be a better understanding of how people arrive there, and how decisions to turn down shelter bed — often influenced by work schedules, or relationships, or pets, or simply an understandable desire for autonomy — come to be.
We’ve got to be able to meet people where they are, he tells me.
For an example, take 37-year-old Jamil Boyd, who as of last week was living in an encampment on the Tacoma Tideflats just off Portland Avenue East. I asked Boyd, a one-time resident of the Jungle, and a former bartender and student at the Bates Technical College barber program, why he wasn’t interested in staying in a shelter.
“Some of those places, it’s just like being a toddler,” he said. “They tell you when you’ve got to lay down. And I don’t like it. I don’t want to be told when I have to go to sleep. I know when I want to go to sleep. I’m a grown man.”
Connecting with folks such as Boyd, and earning their trust, is imperative if Tacoma is to find better success in dealing with its homelessness crisis, Blocker contends.
“Right now, we’re pushing people around,” he said. “Many of them are rejecting the help (we offer). I just think we need to figure out a way to try to centralize as many people as possible, and provide some wraparound services. That’s what people need, and we need to do that more often.”
“I’ve been homeless myself,” the councilman continued. “I know that when people say they want to help, the help comes with conditions.
“We need to do more to build trust.”