A dozen or so people who have been living in a homeless camp along the Puyallup River in the Tacoma Tideflats packed their things early Wednesday as contractors for the city rolled up with a truck to begin cleaning up the debris.
The reason: City officials said the Army Corps of Engineers needed to come to the site off Portland Avenue East near East 18th Street to make repairs to the levee that protects Tacoma from the river.
The levee is federal property, said Corps spokesman Dallas Edwards, and the Army Corps has been aware of homeless camps that have cropped up along the Puyallup River in parts of Tacoma for about the past year.
“There is obviously standard concerns — you get the health hazards, the trash and safety hazards,” Edwards said. “We don’t have a project going on right there immediately, but we do have employees who go down there and do regular maintenance on the levee.”
Edwards said Army Corps staff had noticed some campers had been digging into the levee to put up temporary shelters with pieces of lumber.
“That concerns us with the integrity of the levee, especially with the upcoming flood season, so it was at that point we asked the city of Tacoma to help us ask them to be elsewhere, basically, and ask them to move on,” Edwards said.
This summer, Pierce County officials gave a similar reason for evicting a group of homeless campers from the banks of River Road in Puyallup. They said crews planned to clear brush and trash from the levee to allow the Army Corps to inspect the structure that channels the river.
Starting around 8 a.m. at the Tacoma site, two men hired to clean up the camp by a city contractor lugged old rugs, dirty love seats and trash up the embankment and into the back of a truck. They estimated it would take about three days to clean up the site, dotted with tents and other makeshift shelters.
Two community liaison officers from the Tacoma Police Department looked on, chatting with some of the campers. Staff from Positive Interactions, which works to connect the homeless with mental health, substance abuse, housing and other services, were there offering their help.
As they worked, David McCord and his friends smoked cigarettes and gathered their blankets, cots, pillows, food and clothes, and considered where they might go next.
McCord, 25, said he’s been living at the camp for about six months, and has known for weeks that they would be asked to leave. He said the camp — “my little village I built” — has been a refuge for homeless people who prefer quiet, private places that are out of view of the street. Many people with pets or who are in relationships won’t go to shelters because they’ll be separated from their partner or animal.
“We help a lot of people that don’t go into shelters,” McCord said.
Even if they did seek space at shelters, they might not find it. Local homeless shelters are turning away about 200 people a night, said Colin DeForrest, homeless services manager for the city of Tacoma.
At one point about two years ago, there were close to 20 people living inside the fenced-off property next to the levee, which is a Superfund site. DeForrest said the city was forced to clear them out because of the property’s contamination. Many of the homeless campers then spread out along the river bank, seeking other places to camp, and about 50 people have settled along the Middle Waterway next to Stellar Industrial on East 11th Street. That site is expected to be cleared out in a few weeks, officials said.
“They moved here when we cleaned other encampments,” DeForrest said. “Many of these individuals moved this way because they don’t have anywhere else to go. ... they’re along the Puyallup River, all the way from Orting to Tacoma.”