It was the largest turnout Sandra Ford had seen in a long time.
About 50 people from neighborhoods in South and East Tacoma packed Light & Life Christian Fellowship on Tuesday for a Safe Streets meeting run by Ford, a 17-year city resident.
The topic? Safety concerns at the nearby Charlotte’s Blueberry Park.
The attendance stemmed from what Ford says is growing frustrations among residents who fear using the park at 7402 E. D St. because of homeless encampments.
“The way things are going, and how angry and upset a lot of people are, somebody’s going to get really hurt,” Ford told the crowd Tuesday. “Somebody’s going to take it in their own hands to do something that they shouldn’t do, because I can feel some of the boiling points.”
One neighbor at the meeting said she lives across the street from the park.
“It’s coming into my front yard now, and people are going to start getting irritated,” she said. “And when we do something to protect ourselves, then we’re going to be in the wrong, I guarantee you. It’s frustrating.”
The topic isn’t uncommon in Pierce County. Tensions are on the rise as local leaders seek solutions to homelessness, drug activity and housing.
A new playground is expected to open at Blueberry Park in July, but people who live nearby and in the adjacent Larchmont and Fern Hill neighborhoods say they’re concerned about kids playing there. They say they’ve found used needles, feces and garbage across the park.
“It has me worried,” Ford told The News Tribune. “Schools out. Kids don’t have a safe place to play.”
Metro Parks Tacoma, the city and police department addressed resident concerns at Tuesday’s meeting.
Tacoma Police Lt. Corey Darlington, who covers the Blueberry Park area, encouraged residents to help address short and long term solutions.
“We’ll go above and beyond, as we normally do, but we are limited in our scope and authority as to what can be enforced,” Darlington told the crowd Tuesday.
A troubled history
Safety concerns at Blueberry Park aren’t new.
Originally Berg’s Blueberry Farm from 1952 to 1968, Metro Parks took over and preserved the land in 1997. Of the park’s 20 acres, 10 acres are wetlands and cannot be disturbed.
“This is not the only park we have problems in, but this is the one that’s been most active,” Metro Parks Commissioner Tim Reid told neighbors at Tuesday’s meeting.
In 2015, neighbors complained about land owned by Tacoma Public Schools, an undeveloped parcel to the south they said was strewn with garbage from campers.
Tacoma Public Schools sold the property to developer Green Harbor Communities several years ago, district spokesman Dan Voelpel said. The district also donated property to Metro Parks.
Green Harbor Communities is currently building “The Preserve” on the site — a project consisting of 73 cottages priced for households making $75,000 or less.
The project has lost “tens of thousands of dollars at this point in time” due to delays, co-owner Michael Pressnall said during citizens forum at a City Council meeting June 11. Four other residents also spoke.
“We walk the property every single week, and we’ve had knives pulled on us. We’ve picked up 5-gallon bucket of needles at this point in time. We have human waste ... it’s coming through in droves at this point,” Pressnall said during public comment.
Costs incurred from delays could impact the cost of the houses, Pressnall added.
Park owners discussed working together in 2015 to find ways to keep the park clean, including trimming vegetation and continued patrols.
But problems have persisted, Ford said.
“I think it’s gotten worse in the past couple years,” Ford said. “Maybe some of it has to do with housing. Maybe some of it has to do with the drug crisis — but I think in the past couple of years it’s really gotten bad here.”
Since January 2019, there’s been 25 police calls to the park’s address, Darlington said. Types of calls range from suspicious person, trespass order, traffic stop, medical aid, warrant arrest, civil issue and narcotics activity. The majority are security checks initiated by patrol officers.
The city’s encampment response map shows four camps listed in Blueberry Park, with the most recent Homeless Outreach Response Team (HOT) visit on June 11.
“(Community Liaison Officers) cleared the park so Metro Parks could conduct a clean up for the encampments that were present,” the report stated. “HOT will continue to monitor the park as well as the other locations in the neighborhood.”
Neighbors said they’ve alerted City Councilman Chris Beale and Sen. Steve Conway, D-South Tacoma, to the problems. At Tuesday’s meeting, Conway suggested trimming vegetation to improve visibility into wooded areas.
“It strikes me that there needs to be some sort of walk through there at night and early in the evening to make sure no one’s camped there at night,” Conway said at the meeting.
While many residents have concerns of drug use, Darlington said that not all of the people living in the camps use drugs.
“Not everybody’s a heroin user or a thief or a criminal, but a good number of them are,” he said.
Erica Azcueta is program manager for homelessness and household stability for the city of Tacoma and supervises two members of the city’s HOT team. Azcueta echoed the range of backgrounds.
“There’s always going to be a mixed population of people that are out there,” Azcueta told The News Tribune. “There are some who don’t want help and don’t want to engage with police. There are others who say they are on a wait list for shelter and want help.”
Neighbors acknowledge that police have been doing the best they can, but say once camps are cleaned out at Blueberry Park, they see an increase in activity at an undeveloped private property several blocks away at 75th and McKinley.
The wooded 4-acre property has been a camping site for years, neighbors said. There is currently an encampment there.
Allison Garrison has filed complaints with Tacoma 311 about the property at 7502 McKinley Ave. 13 times since September 2018.
Garrison’s parents own a house next door to the property, and she said it’s been a problem for years. Her mother had the house built in 1965. After Garrison’s father died in 2002, Garrison worried about her mother living in the house alone and said she’s had nightmares about the property. A tent is visible through her mother’s fence.
Garrison reached out twice to the property owner, who said his hands were tied due to wetlands on the site. The News Tribune was unable to reach the property owners for comment as of Friday afternoon.
Ford said the cleanups just move people back and forth from Blueberry Park to the McKinley property, and the problem doesn’t get resolved.
“We need to put pressure on people that own these vacant properties,” she said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Azcueta said there’s a plan to conduct a cleanup of the McKinley site, possibly next week.
Blueberry Park presents a particular set of challenges. Much of the park is heavily wooded, making cleanup difficult.
“What’s missing is site security, if you will, or Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED),” Darlington said.
That means clearing some vegetation for visibility and opening up sight lines with more pathways. This month, residents came together to create a pathway through one of the wooded areas. Residents also hope The Preserve project will clear some dense areas.
About 10 acres of the park is protected by Tacoma Municipal Code, said Mary Anderson, natural resources manager for Metro Parks Tacoma.
“So it’s protected as far as the vegetation removal that we can do without permission from the city of Tacoma,” Anderson said. “We’re in the process of getting that permission right now on an emergency basis … I know it’s been moving very slowly, but it really is starting to move and pick up a little momentum.”
Also suggested at the neighborhood meeting: a perimeter track around the park, potential security cameras and improved lighting.
Neighbors also suggested holding more events at the park to make more of a community presence.
In the meantime, camp cleanups will continue.
“The police department is working diligently hand in hand with all of our partners,” Darlington told residents.
“We’re just one cog in the wheel, and it has to be a pretty giant wheel to make everything happen.”