It’s known as “The Compound.”
And when I was there earlier this month, it was moving day.
At the gated entrance of a barren parcel of land on the Tacoma Tideflats just off Portland Avenue East, across the street from what’s billed as a combination espresso stand and deli that fuels industrial workers for the shifts ahead, a rundown white truck pulled onto the roadway.
Its bed full of what looked like discarded scraps — pallets, pieces of plywood, and tarps flapping in the wind — the truck picked up speed, heading down the road, destination unknown.
But these weren’t scraps in the truck. They were someone’s worldly possessions.
This scene would repeat itself several times as I waited for Colin DeForrest, Tacoma’s homeless services manager.
Over the last several months, DeForrest has been here often. A former home of a metals recycling facility, and before that a place where coke — a fuel used in the production of steel — was made, these days the fenced portion of the 5-acre state-owned parcel has become a frequent home to people in Tacoma experiencing homelessness.
That’s problematic, for a number of reasons.
Since 2000, this land along the Puyallup River has been on the Department of Ecology’s list of environmental cleanup sites, due to decades of industrial abuse. According to Steve Teel, the Department of Ecology’s Cleanup Project Manager at the site, the pollution here includes contamination to the soil and groundwater. While most of the nasty stuff is below ground, there is likely some contamination to the surface soil, mostly metals.
We don’t’ recommend that people live or camp on contaminated sites, at all.
Department of Ecology’s cleanup project manager
Stating the obvious, Teel says, “We don’t recommend that people live or camp on contaminated sites, at all.”
I visited The Compound on a Friday. The following Monday, officials from the state Department of Natural Resources, with assistance from the city, began clearing what was left of a homeless encampment that DeForrest tells me once exceeded 50 inhabitants. The cost to the state for the cleanup, according to Carrie McCausland, the DNR’s deputy communications director, was at least $9,000.
McCausland says it took two full work crews of 16-20 people, plus two to four field bosses, three days to remove the garbage and vegetation. By the time the work was finished, four 40-yard drop boxes of debris had been hauled off.
DeForrest and a team of social workers got the word out early. By the time the state’s cleanup crew arrived last Monday, all that was left were the stragglers.
This isn’t the first time DeForrest has been to this site, and the frustration about returning is obvious in his voice. He compares what’s happening to “a really twisted game of hide-and-go-seek.”
“Two years ago … we cleared this site. We moved individuals out, and we tried to connect what individuals we could to services and housing, which was very few. Two years later, we’re coming out to the same site, which is repopulated. We have many of the same individuals who were here from two years ago,” DeForrest told me.
“The city continues to move the individuals along, clean the sites, always genuinely trying to connect individuals to services. But the reality is there’s just not enough shelter stock. There’s not enough affordable housing stock. There’s not enough places for these individuals to go,” he continued. “That’s kind of how we ended up where we are right now.
“It’s frustrating for all parties involved, I would say.”
For Racheal Rappe, a 48-year-old resident of the encampment, “frustrating” might be an understatement. Three days before the site was cleared, Rappe showed me the tent she’d been sleeping in for the last several months, along with her service dog Baby, a feisty Chihuahua.
She told me this is the seventh time in the last few years she’s been living in an encampment cleared by the city or other officials.
Two years ago … we cleared this site. We moved individuals out, and we tried to connect what individuals we could to services and housing, which was very few. Two years later, we’re coming out to the same site, which is repopulated. We have many of the same individuals who were here from two years ago.
Colin DeForrest, Tacoma’s homeless services manager
Two years ago, the first time this land was cleared of a homeless encampment, Rappe says she was one of the people who was moved along. Since then, she’s spent nights hunkered down on Tacoma Avenue, near the East 11th Street Bridge over the Puyallup River, and at an open field not far from here, near Stellar Industrial.
“I was here prior, and now I’m back,” Rappe said. “It’s hard out here. This is hard. You freeze. You’re hungry. You’re cold. … The city doesn’t understand. There’s so many places open, I don’t understand why they can’t put us in something.”
For a number of reasons, including political ones, the city of Tacoma has been reluctant to push for authorized tent cities like ones in Seattle and elsewhere — safe spots where people experiencing homelessness can live temporarily without facing the constant threat of sudden eviction. It’s not needed, politicians often argue, and it’s inhumane to let people live outside.
According to DeForrest, there’s a clear paradox there, since, as he says, “Tacoma doesn’t want a tent city. But look around. We have a tent city.” His years of work in places like The Compound have convinced him that it’s time for the city to explore “outside-the-box” alternatives.
While outreach workers genuinely work to connect whoever they can with services and a path out of homelessness, the reality is that most of the people living in The Compound will remain on the streets – at least for the time being. Many have reservations about staying in a shelter, even if there was space available to them, often because they don’t want to be separated from a loved one or pet. Others simply prefer the lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to, and the community that’s cultivated in homeless encampments.
So once The Compound was cleared, the inhabitants needed somewhere to go, a fact outreach workers know all too well. Among residents word spread of a new place to camp not far away.
“They were just telling me that, down the street here, you can go camp in a field, I guess,” Rappe said on the day I visited.
While I didn’t witness outreach workers encouraging people to move to this new location, where setting up camp is just as illegal as it is here, it also was clear from watching a number of interactions that nearly all involved — residents and those trying to help them out of homelessness — knew of this new spot’s existence and that many inhabitants of The Compound would soon find their way there.
Rappe’s story is far from unique. During an afternoon talking with people on this contaminated slice of Tacoma, I met at least four people who lived here the first time the site was cleared.
David McCord is a 26-year-old with striking blue eyes. He told me he’s been homeless “for about 10 years,” since the death of his mother. “I started couch surfing around then,” he said.
I asked him where he’d go once state work crews converged on The Compound.
“I’m not sure,” he said.
Would he find a new spot, in a new encampment?
“Absolutely, yeah, for a minute,” he told me, before revealing long-range goals of attending college and, perhaps, studying electrical engineering.
“It’s going to be the same cycle,” he said of what likely awaited him. Like Rappe, he’s been moved out of a homeless encampment “four or five times” in recent years.
“When they originally ran us out (of The Compound), we went down to the 11th Street Bridge and camped around there. Then they kicked us out of there, so we came and moved back on the other side of the fence here — that was like four or five months or something like that,” he explained.
“Then we just kind of came back over here.”
The story is similar for 49-year-old Yvette Ortiz, who three days before The Compound was cleared, stood outside a clean, well-kept camp, complete with landscaping. She acknowledged that issues of addiction are at the root of her homelessness, and told me she’s not sure where she’d go when the site was cleared.
Basically, every two months, for the last three years, I’ve had to move. They just keep pushing us on.
Yvette Ortiz, 49-year-old former resident of The Compound homeless encampment
“Basically, every two months, for the last three years, I’ve had to move. They just keep pushing us on,” Ortiz said. “I guess the toughest part is finding another spot, really.”
Today, if you drive by The Compound, it doesn’t look much different than other pieces of vacant land along the Tideflats. DNR officials are studying the contamination issues here and working to develop a cleanup plan. While there’s no exact time line for this work, Teel expects it to be completed in in “the next year or so.”
As workers left, they posted “No Trespassing” signs in hopes of preventing future encampments. Meanwhile, Teel says that the DNR and the city of Tacoma plan to “increase patrols in that area, to try to discourage people from coming back to the site.”
As for what progress the cleanup of The Compound made in Tacoma’s efforts to reduce homelessness, DeForrest is skeptically resigned.
“Basically, it’s just a reset, and we will play this game all over again, at whatever site they go to next,” he concludes.