Amid a homelessness crisis that hasn’t shown signs of subsiding, Tacoma city officials say finding a permanent location for a young adult shelter and youth drop-in center is a priority this year.
They’re hoping for better luck than they had last year.
In January 2017, the City Council voted to buy two parcels on South Tacoma Way for $850,000 with a plan to transform a long-vacant storefront in the South Tacoma business district into a young adult shelter and drop-in center, something staff and council members say Tacoma sorely needs. The city had plans for a retail space on the first floor of the building where young people could get work experience in a supervised setting.
This school year, 1,370 homeless students are attending Tacoma Public Schools, according to spokesman Dan Voelpel. In the 2016-17 school year, the district had 29,091 total students.
A year later, the city sold the property for the same amount it paid for it. It never became a shelter or a place for homeless teens to do their laundry, get connected to resources, take a shower or get a hot meal. A $45,000 feasibility study commissioned months after the property was purchased showed the space wasn’t big enough to serve the needs of the large, young homeless population. The study also laid out many expensive renovations before the building would be ready.
“The issue is finding and identifying the right location and the right property,” said Pamela Duncan, human services manager for the city.
City officials said there were a number of reasons a feasibility study was done after the purchase went through and not before.
Tacoma had a different city manager and a different director of Neighborhood and Community Services when the property initially was considered for a shelter. That manager, T.C. Broadnax, and director, Nadia Chandler Hardy, both now work for the city of Dallas.
The property also was purchased before the city changed its approach to addressing homelessness and declared a public health emergency to deal with what the City Council has called a homelessness crisis. Another complicating factor: Businesses on South Tacoma Way fought back hard against the proposal from the beginning.
The city is still on the hunt for a permanent place to shelter young adults. For several years, the Beacon Senior Center has been used as a temporary overnight shelter, but during the day it’s used for senior programming. On weeknights, young, homeless people can only be there between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., and teens trying to use drop-in services can only be there from 5-9 p.m.
On Saturdays, drop-in services are available from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. for teens and young adults.
Michael Mirra sees a clear solution in the Beacon site at 415 S. 13th St. The executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority is advocating for turning the senior center, which the city owns, into a permanent shelter and drop-in center for youth and young adults. If that happens, Mirra said the city could move the senior center programming to the People’s Community Center on the Hilltop.
“The Beacon Center is in a neighborhood that has either welcomed or adjusted to the presence of a shelter, and neighbors there have stepped up to be helpful to these young people. And the city has been having trouble finding a neighborhood with a similar welcome, so why turn this one down?” Mirra said in a recent interview.
Because the city already owns it, it could be easily and more inexpensively converted into a permanent shelter and drop-in center, he said.
That also could be done fairly quickly, which is key. Community Youth Services, which runs the temporary overnight shelter and drop-in center, has said it won’t renew its contract and is leaving Tacoma and Pierce County in December. That means Tacoma will have to find another organization before then to run homeless youth and young adult services.
“The city, I don’t think, has a reasonable prospect of finding a highly capable organization who would agree to take that contract over unless the city found a suitable facility for it, and we’re in a hurry now,” Mirra said. “The city has been looking for a long time for a site, and the proposal Tacoma Housing Authority has made that I just described will be faster and less expensive than continuing to look for another site.”
City manager Elizabeth Pauli said last week that staff is researching the proposal. As of now, it’s the only potential location the city is considering, she said.