Amid criticism from business owners and South Tacoma neighbors, as well as praise from nonprofits that serve the homeless, the Tacoma City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to purchase two parcels for a drop-in center for teens and young adults and an overnight shelter for young adults.
The controversy surrounding the planned center for teens and young adults, set to open at the corner of South 54th Street and South Tacoma Way, has largely come from businesses in the retail district who say an overnight shelter for 18- to 24-year-olds and drop-in center for those ages 12 to 24 isn’t appropriate in that location.
They’re worried the area’s reputation getting worse, that vulnerable young people would be exposed to a number of sometimes raucous bars on the strip, and about the perception the center could create for their customers.
But the location — a long-vacant storefront in a culturally diverse area, near public transit, and close to other city services — is one of its strong points, argued city staff and several members of the City Council.
The overnight shelter for young adults is slated to have 50 beds, and the drop-in center will offer referral services, showers, laundry, hot meals, and will help youths and young people get connected to job opportunities. There also will be between 1,500 and 2,000 square feet of retail on the ground floor, envisioned as a place where homeless young people can get work experience in a supervised setting.
“I’m comfortable with the fact that this is located in a place that makes sense because of the services that we’re providing, but I would ask that as we continue to move in different types of projects that we really gotta knuckle down on our notification process and continue to push for greater outreach to those folks beyond 400 feet, beyond 1,000 feet,” said Councilman Robert Thoms before the vote to buy the two parcels for $850,000 plus closing costs.
Earlier in the evening, Jamie Thoburn, 22, had urged the council to approve the purchase. He said he spent 18 months of his life homeless due to drug addiction, and that the city needs a young adult shelter in a place other than downtown. According to a presentation from city staff, Mount Tahoma, Foss, Wilson, Lincoln and Stadium high schools combined had roughly 1,270 homeless students between September and January.
Finding a youth shelter to spend the night “changed the experience for me — it was a place where I wasn’t as surrounded by drugs, and definitely not as surrounded by dangerous people,” Thoburn told the council Tuesday night. “To me, the difference between a youth shelter and a regular shelter is the regular shelter has a bunch of people who are stuck in that lifestyle, but the youth shelter has some people who make bad choices, but they’re still redeemable.”
One business said that the district is appealing the conditional use permit, approved by the city earlier this month. The group doesn’t plan to back down: James Rich, owner of Guardian Security on South Tacoma Way, said the businesses have hired a lawyer.
“We’re putting, obviously, the city on notice that we’re going to litigate this, so we’re going to drag it out for God knows how long,” Rich said by phone Wednesday.
The location, and not the shelter, is the problem, Rich said. The group is coming up with a list of demands for the city to ease their worries about the possible negative impacts of the shelter, but isn’t ready to make those public yet, he said.
“We’ve never said anything about the program, they run a good program, but in a retail environment, unless it’s mitigated thoroughly, we’re going to fight,” he said.