State, Tacoma officials consider how to solve homeless camp under I-705

A pile of trash builds up March 13 at the Tacoma Eastern Gulch under Interstate 705 at the East 26th Street bridge, east of the Brown & Haley factory, upper right, in Tacoma.
A pile of trash builds up March 13 at the Tacoma Eastern Gulch under Interstate 705 at the East 26th Street bridge, east of the Brown & Haley factory, upper right, in Tacoma. lwong@thenewstribune.com

On the south end of the Interstate 705 overpass in downtown Tacoma, an on-and-off homeless encampment more than a decade old has swelled to more than 100 residents, presenting problems for its neighbors, the city and the landowner.

The village of tents and shanties is nicknamed the Jungle, like the well-known and larger encampment that Seattle cleared 300 people out of in 2016. It sprawls across an otherwise unremarkable and undeveloped lowland beneath I-705, between Tacoma Dome parking lots and the Brown & Haley factory on East 26th Street.

The land is owned by the state Department of Transportation, which has met several times with city officials to work out a lasting solution.

Drug use and prostitution are frequent and rarely policed, a city official said.

No agreement on a permanent fix has coalesced.

Brown & Haley workers say they watch garbage mounds swell beneath the 26th Street bridge, downhill from the encampment zone, on a near-weekly basis. The volume appears, to them, to be from other people illegally adding sacks of their own garbage to the homeless camp’s leavings.

Todd Huber shook his head the other day as he looked from the bridge to the growing array of tents and detritus.

“It’s kind of like Seattle,” said Huber, Brown & Haley’s director of operations.

The garbage pile near the encampment is on the downhill side of the pocket of urban land, which adjoins downtown.

Its formal name, somewhat obscure, is the Tacoma Eastern Gulch. It was named a century ago for the train line whose tracks still lie between the muddy expanse under the busy highway and the Brown & Haley building.

Long before the freeway pillars or the railroad tracks, the gulch held a trail along which Native American tribes frequently traveled to get to a large landing site at Commencement Bay, according to Herbert Hunt’s 1916 three-volume “History of Tacoma.”

A 2006 story in The News Tribune mentions the Jungle, which has ebbed and grown over the years. Its current size dates back to last fall, said Colin DeForrest, the city’s manager of homeless services.

A battered minivan and a pickup several decades old, both apparently being lived in, were parked there during a visit Wednesday. DeForrest said that was a new development.

Brown & Haley employees said they worry that the recurring garbage mound, which during recent rains sat in a deep lagoon fed by a stream from the uphill encampment, is sending pollution into Puget Sound because it drains into the Thea Foss Waterway.

Brown & Haley vice president David Armstrong said the litter is torn open and picked over by camp residents who also use the area as an open toilet, with a seasonal stream carrying runoff into the Thea Foss. He has written city officials and Gov. Jay Inslee seeking intervention.

DeForrest said the garbage mound is intentional. He said he encourages Jungle residents to take their rubbish outside the campsite in the interest of hygiene, and the downhill dumping spot is relatively easy for city workers to reach.

He said Wednesday that city workers had picked up 6,000 pounds of Jungle garbage from under the bridge within the past week.

On a walk through the warren of makeshift homes, DeForrest said the garbage plan has kept most residents from strewing waste near where they eat and sleep. He noted the lack of debris outside several tents.

“If you’re used to seeing these places, for what it is, this one is pretty clean,” he said.

Wednesday morning, occasional Jungle resident D’Everette Toomer, 33, ate chicken-flavored Top Ramen noodles dry from the package and said the neighborhood lets him keep to himself. A campfire of industrial wood scraps blazed beside his tent.

“You gotta stay warm here,” he said.

In a matter-of-fact conversation, Toomer discussed his difficulty getting work since serving time in prison for felony convictions. Afterward, DeForrest called a co-worker to try to connect Toomer with help.

The growing scale of the Jungle means the effectiveness of case-by-case assistance is limited. Shelters have to turn away more than 200 homeless people nightly because they’re full, DeForrest said. He has worked on homeless services for Tacoma for seven years and says the problem now is the worst that he has seen.

Its main causes, he said, are mental illness and heroin addiction. People suffering from each find their way to the Jungle and other places to get out of the rain.

When fences are put up, people cut holes and find their way in, as happens beneath highway overpasses around Tacoma. Under I-705, the size of the area means it has a daunting number of potential entry points to deal with, including the railroad tracks when a train isn’t on them.

State transportation and city officials said they have met several times to discuss the site and have not yet agreed on how to proceed.

“There is access from private property that we don’t have jurisdiction over,” said Claudia Bingham Baker, spokeswoman for the Transportation Department.

She said fences the agency has built have been cut, mended and cut again.

“We don’t know of an effective barrier to keep people out from underneath it,” she said of the I-705 bridge.

DeForrest said a cleanup of the the encampment within the next few weeks is being discussed with the Transportation Department. He was asked how long that would last.

“It’ll repopulate the next day, I guarantee,” DeForrest said, “unless you have some monitoring or some kind of plan in place.”

DeForrest said city and transportation officials have a tentative plan to reshape the Jungle with bicycle trails and other amenities to bring the area into active use by urbanites, in the same fashion Swan Creek Park was remade into a recreational bicycling destination.

Negotiations over land-access rights have held that up, he said.

Meanwhile, rudimentary steps are being taken to keep the issue minimally visible.

DeForrest instructs residents to place their tents as far uphill from Brown & Haley as possible. Most of the garbage is tucked under the East 26th Street bridge.

This week, a pedestrian on the bridge could look down and spot only an empty lawn-size rubbish can and several ripped-open 40-gallon garbage bags.

A deconstructed desktop computer of uncertain vintage and a moderate-size hill of trash bags stood yards away, waiting for municipal pickup.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally