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Tired of being Tacoma’s ‘stepchild,’ business district opposes shelter for young people

Possible homeless youth shelter met with cold reception in South Tacoma

Business owners along South Tacoma Way worry about impact of proposed homeless youth shelter
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Business owners along South Tacoma Way worry about impact of proposed homeless youth shelter

A possible future site for an overnight shelter for homeless young adults is facing mounting opposition from neighbors in the South Tacoma business district it could eventually call home.

Business owners say they don’t have a beef with the city’s plans to open a shelter and daytime drop-in center. It’s the location they question.

Merchants and members of the South Tacoma Neighborhood Council say the proposed spot — an empty building at South 54th Street and South Tacoma Way — isn’t appropriate for a shelter because it’s in the middle of a retail zone. Some said they’re worried about the area’s reputation getting worse, and said they’re concerned about the crowd a shelter could draw to their business district. Others have said they don’t think a commercial strip with bars is the right place for at-risk youth and young adults to spend time.

“We need to help kids, but not in the business district,” said Ted Wilkinson, owner of Randy’s Loans, across the street from where the shelter would be. “It’s not going to help our business, in terms of having homeless people hanging around.”

Public comments on a conditional use permit to site the shelter, which would house 18- to 24-year-olds, and an associated drop-in center for 12- to 24-year-olds are due to the city Friday.

We need to help kids, but not in the business district. It’s not going to help our business, in terms of having homeless people hanging around

Ted Wilkinson, owner of Randy’s Loans in South Tacoma

Karen Rich, vice president of Guardian Security Group on South Tacoma Way, said the area is still recovering from the chilling economic effects of the recession, and while potential tenants have shown interest in moving in, many empty storefronts remain.

“The members of the South Tacoma Business District Association are not against the shelter, as there is a definite need for this service,” Rich said in an email. “What we are against is the location that the city of Tacoma has chosen, which is in the heart of the business district. This is a retail, shopping district, and we want it to remain as such.”

Jeff Call, owner of Stonegate Pizza, said he’s tired of their section of the city being treated like the “stepchild of Tacoma.”

“This has always been an area for nightlife … there are a lot of bars down here, and I don’t think that’s really the best environment for a young person to be hanging out that maybe has drug tendencies or hasn’t yet, but they’re on a strip — I wouldn’t want my kids hanging out on the street down here,” Call said.

Neighbors are concerned for other reasons. Pennie Smith, with the South Tacoma Neighborhood Council, said she was hoping a drug store or other needed retail use would go in that space. “I would rather see a drug store there because we have none in South Tacoma now,” Smith said. A nearby preschool could prove to be uncomfortably close to the shelter, too, she pointed out. “Nobody is against the project; it’s just the project in that location.”

But City Councilman Keith Blocker, who experienced homelessness during his teen and young adult years, said the shelter is desperately needed. The 2016 Point in Time Count found 65 sheltered and 25 unsheltered homeless youths in Pierce County. A crisis residential center for homeless 12- to 17-year-olds opened on the city’s East Side last month.

It’s hard when young people don’t have a place to go, and the city has stepped up and put in a tremendous amount of resources to make sure these young people are safe

Councilman Keith Blocker

Blocker said he understands the concerns from the business community in the southern part of his district, but doesn’t think it would have the negative impact some are envisioning.

“I’m confident that staff will do a good job at minimizing any potential liabilities in terms of attracting a negative element. But at the same time I do understand their concerns in terms of not wanting anything to hurt business in their area,” Blocker said.

He said the city is hoping to put a retail occupant in the building’s first floor that would be beneficial to both small businesses and the young adults.

“It’s hard when young people don’t have a place to go, and the city has stepped up and put in a tremendous amount of resources to make sure these young people are safe,” he said. “This is a step to make sure these young people don’t have to resort to desperate acts” in order to have a place to sleep.

Staff in the city’s Neighborhood and Community Services Department were not available for an interview Wednesday.

If approved, the two-story site will have between 1,500 and 2,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor. The drop-in center will offer referral services, showers, laundry, hot meals, and will help youth and young people get connected to job opportunities.

It’s not clear yet how many beds the overnight shelter would have.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud

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