Tent cities for Tacoma’s homeless are coming soon

Homeless with nowhere to go but pitch a tent on Tacoma Avenue

As the number of homeless people in Tacoma rise, emergency services such as shelters are stretched and encampments along city streets sprout.
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As the number of homeless people in Tacoma rise, emergency services such as shelters are stretched and encampments along city streets sprout.

You can call them tent cities. Or transitional centers. Or even homeless campuses, as one City Council member recently suggested to me.

But what’s become clear over the last week is they’re coming to Tacoma.

In the midst of what Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and other local leaders have now declared as a crisis in homelessness worthy of an emergency declaration, city officials have been meeting regularly to form a response plan.

And part of the response that’s emerging involves temporary “transitional centers” spread throughout the city, the mayor and Deputy Fire Chief Tory Green confirmed in recent days.

While specific details are being hashed out — including details as small as what they’ll be called — these temporary centers will take two forms that residents are familiar with.

There will be centers akin to tent cities, though Strickland’s goal is to make them cleaner and more orderly than what some might associate with such sites. While Green acknowledged residents of these centers will be provided tents, he said the conceptual vision includes a large, fabric dome covering entire sites — think tents inside of a tent. Additionally, Green said the sites will include bathrooms, wood fencing, trash removal, showers and 24-hour security.

The other form will be collections of small prefabricated homes, similar to the enclaves of tiny homes that can already be found in cities such as Seattle and Olympia. These sites will include wood fencing, basic amenities and 24-hour security, Green said.

The exact locations for where these transitional centers will be located has not been determined, according to Strickland and Green. Neither has the final number of them, when they’ll be operational, or how many residents each will serve. Green said he’s reluctant to position tent-city-style centers in residential neighborhoods, meaning locations close to the port or industrial areas could be preferred.

The sites would likely use city-owned property, both officials said, though the city remains open to other partnerships should they present themselves.

Green said each site could cost between $750,000 and $1 million a year to operate, calling the figure a “guesstimate.” The goal is for the sites to be temporary solutions to Tacoma’s homelessness crisis.

Between $750,000 and $1 millionThe estimated annual cost of operating each of the city’s transitional centers, according to Tory Green, Tacoma deputy fire chief

Strickland and Green said the different styles would allow the city to serve the different populations that currently inhabit unauthorized homeless encampments throughout Tacoma.

Individuals with fewer challenges or barriers to escaping homelessness, like those with jobs, for instance, would likely be offered a spot in a collection of tiny homes scattered throughout the city.

Those with more significant challenges, like a history of chronic homelessness, addiction or behavioral health issues, would be directed toward a temporary, monitored tent city.

While Green said drug use and addiction would not prevent an individual from being housed in one of Tacoma’s temporary transition centers, such activity would be barred on the premises, and other rules would be enforced.

Why is the city taking this step?

For one, many residents of the city’s current unauthorized encampments are reluctant to use the traditional shelter model. They have their reasons, including behavioral health conditions, work schedules, relationships or pets. The limitations of traditional shelters were demonstrated recently when only three residents of the “Jungle” took advantage of the 30 beds that were made available at the Tacoma Rescue Mission when the large encampment was cleared.

Additionally, emergency shelters like the ones operated by the Tacoma Rescue Mission, Catholic Community Services and the Salvation Army are chronically at capacity and turn away individuals seeking a warm, dry place to sleep on a nightly basis.

The new transitional centers, Strickland and Green believe, can provide an alternative to unauthorized, makeshift camps that can pose public health concerns due to a lack of basic necessities like sanitation and garbage removal.

One of the selling points of these models, according to both officials, is their ability to provide a centralized location to provide social and health services to a diverse population that, up until this point, has been pushed from site to site as the city clears one homeless encampment only to see several new ones pop up, making them difficult to track.

“Our goal is to make sure no one who’s in Tacoma has to sleep on a street, in a park, beneath an overpass or outside, and the message we want to send is, help is available,” Strickland said during a May 2 City Council meeting.

“Now we have to figure out what that means, because the questions we have to answer for folks if we’re clearing out encampments is, ‘Where do I go then?’ 

Temporary transitional centers can provide at least part of the answer to this question, Strickland and Green told The News Tribune. Once they’re created, they’ll also allow the city to clear unauthorized encampments more quickly, Green said.

As I reported earlier this week, all of this fits into the three-phase approach the city is attempting to take to its homelessness crisis.

The first phase of that plan was revealed to The News Tribune on Monday, with Strickland detailing steps to addressing the problem that centered on what she described as “mitigation” — the cleaning of trash, human waste and hypodermic needles from the city’s many homeless encampments. Enforcement of existing laws at these unauthorized encampments has also been made a priority of phase one.

There are at least 50 homeless camps in Tacoma, according to the city’s estimates, and about 500 homeless people.

The third phase, according to Strickland, would emphasize short-term transitional housing, with the city attempting to partner with Pierce County and neighboring jurisdictions to implement new approaches.

I didn’t just want to declare an emergency. I wanted to come with some action.

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland

There’s little question that any effort to sanction transitional centers — or tent cities — in Tacoma will be met with some amount of community push-back, especially once specific locations for these sites are identified. That’s likely the reason city officials have been reluctant to discuss the matter publicly until recently, and why an emphasis on mitigation and the enforcement of existing city laws at Tacoma’s unauthorized encampments was the first step in the city’s multiphase approach.

But public perception won’t be the only challenge as the city attempts to chart a new course on homelessness.

Significant questions remain, like what will become of those who are currently experiencing homelessness in Tacoma who refuse to take advantage of the new sites?

And how does the city ensure that these steps are, in fact, temporary, when such a promise depends on creating more short-term transitional housing and permanent housing options for those who find shelter in the city’s new transitional centers?

But for all the drama and additional questions the creation of transitional centers in Tacoma will surely raise, city leaders faced with a growing problem — a problem only exacerbated by the failed approach of pushing those experiencing homelessness from one camp to the next — deserve credit for having the guts to propose something new.

As Strickland told me, she didn’t want to just declare a homeless emergency, she wanted to “come with some action.”

While, in the past she admitted that Tacoma leaders have been reluctant to endorse any sort of tent-city model out of a fear that they would become permanent or attract individuals experiencing homelessness from outside of the city, the situation on the ground, she acknowledged, coupled with the ineffectiveness of past approaches, has changed minds.

Which is probably good, because as Tacoma Homeless Services Manager Colin DeForrest recently told me:

“Until we are willing to increase our tools and think outside the box in another direction, we will continue to bang our head against the wall in the same way.”