We didn’t need an official declaration, though the City Council gave us one last month, that homelessness in Tacoma has reached a public health crisis.
On any given night in Tacoma, more than 500 people seek shelter in doorways, sidewalks, under overpasses and beside Dumpsters, and that’s not counting those who couch surf or sleep in their cars.
It’s a difficult reality for a region that prides itself on progressive values while generating great wealth through global business ventures. How can we allow such visible woe on our streets?
But last week a literal breakthrough occurred.
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Bulldozers, operated by Tacoma city crews, began working on a temporary facility that will bring running water to a 30-tent camp called “The Compound,” near Portland Avenue and 118th Street East on the Tideflats.
“Pop-up,” is the city’s name for these portable amenities; it sounds more like a breakfast pastry or an iPhone app than a sanctioned encampment for the homeless, but no matter; for the 50 people who will call this place home, the new toilets, laundry and shower facilities will lend basic dignity to a situation where there had been none.
Residents will not be allowed to get too comfortable; the pop-up on the Tideflats will last only four to six weeks before it moves on to another homeless site. Wisely, the city is making garbage collection, police presence and drug investigations part of the package.
The city hopes this approach will keep it from playing whack-a-mole with ad hoc encampments like the Jungle, a large homeless camp under Interstate 705 that had to be torn down last month.
Local businesses complained about the Jungle, saying it was a den for drug use, crime and vandalism; certainly the trash, needles and feces left by residents supported those claims.
And who can demonize businesses for wanting safe and clean areas for themselves and their customers?
We applaud the City Council for a pro-active response to local businesses and for coming up with a tangible first-phase fix to this humanitarian crisis.
But it doesn’t stop there. Tent cities are next on the city’s agenda.
Mayor Marilyn Strickland and Deputy Fire Chief Tory Green recently described a vision for the hundreds of homeless people in Tacoma; it involves a large fabric dome covering smaller residential tents.
The details are fuzzy. The cost is estimated at $750,000 to $1 million a year to operate. The place is yet to be determined. And beyond such logistical details, there are ethical and legal considerations to work through.
Large-scale public housing, even if the houses are made of canvas, brings to mind visions of hillside Hoovervilles. Certainly Tacoma government doesn’t want to become a collective slumlord, or in this case, tentlord. Nor does it want to be a magnet for homeless individuals from parts unknown.
The city has adopted Seattle’s “Housing First” model, a common-sense idea that says stable shelter needs to be in place in order for supportive care measures such as job training, mental health services and substance abuse treatment to be most effective.
On that front, the city can encourage developers to accept subsidized tax credits and bring in more affordable housing. But it should not waver from supportive services and from bolstering what faith-based organizations already do.
Tacoma Rescue Mission, Catholic Community Services and the Salvation Army have been leaning into the wind trying to care for unsheltered individuals and families. United Way and Goodwill Industries have made Herculean efforts towards helping individuals gain self-sufficiency.
City officials recently distributed flyers to pop-up residents on the Tideflats, promising to connect them to life-building resources. It’s a good place to start. But the next steps, including tent cities, should proceed with great caution.