Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Homeless sweep at the Jungle shines a light on a failed approach

Angel Fox and Johnie "Demon of Love" Robinson create an updated "American Gothic" at the large encampment of homeless people near East 18th Street and Portland Avenue.
Angel Fox and Johnie "Demon of Love" Robinson create an updated "American Gothic" at the large encampment of homeless people near East 18th Street and Portland Avenue. phaley@thenewstribune.com

Put simply, I’m tired of writing this column.

I’m tired of documenting homelessness in Tacoma. Tired of telling people’s stories of pain, trauma and struggle. Tired of talking to residents and business owners fed up with garbage, public urination and drug use. Tired of trudging into new homeless encampments and seeing the same faces, just in a different location.

And tired of watching us do the same thing, over and over again, and expecting a different result.

Last week, as you likely heard, officials from the state Department of Transportation, aided by city staff, police, and outreach workers, cleared a large homeless encampment known as the Jungle, south of downtown Tacoma, under Interstate 705.

By the time the dust settled, an encampment that was once estimated to have grown to more than 100 residents was basically empty.

But what happened after the cameras stopped rolling was not surprising:

The residents of the Jungle packed up and moved elsewhere — in some cases, only a few blocks away.

“I saw this coming,” said Tacoma’s homeless services manager Colin DeForrest.

So did anyone who knows how these things work.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist,” DeForrest offered.

No, it does not.

Unfortunately, what we’ve been presented with, once again, is proof of an approach to dealing with our most challenging cases of homelessness that’s simply not working.

Homeless residents pack their belongings prior to city and state officials arriving to evict them from "The Jungle" encampment underneath I-705 in downtown Tacoma.

One of the places folks who once called the Jungle home have frequented since the encampment’s closure, to the great frustration and anger of local property owners, is a walkway between 25th and 26th streets downtown, near the Pink Elephant car wash and a Link light rail stop.

It’s known as “The Locks” bridge, because of a public art installation that adorns the pedestrian underpass created by the Sound Transit rail line that cuts overhead.

And lately, according to David Armstrong, vice president of Brown & Haley, which is close to the former Jungle and the pedestrian underpass, it’s become a hotspot for unsightly, unsafe and unlawful behaviors related to homelessness, littering, public urination and defecation, open-air drug use.

Armstrong, who made clear he was speaking to me as a 57-year resident of Tacoma and not in an official capacity on behalf of his employer, fumed over what he views as a failure of city leadership and a refusal to uphold law and order.

“The way the city is currently being managed is an embarrassment. Since when do city employees get to decide which laws to enforce?” Armstrong asked me.

The sentiment was echoed, sometimes in even less restrained terms, by a handful of local business and property owners in the area I spoke to, including Barbi Leifert, who works out of the Tacoma Armour building on East 26th Street. “Health hazard!!!! dirty filthy city of tacoma that will not clean their streets !!!” read just one of the exasperated emails she fired off to city staff this week in response to what she’s seen.

I saw this coming. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist.

Tacoma’s homeless services manager Colin DeForrest

Reactions like this — often full of sweeping characterizations and toxic rhetoric — make me bristle. In the grand scheme, they don’t help. But, when I step back, I can also understand where they’re coming from. For nearly every unauthorized homeless encampment in town, there’s an aggrieved business owner or resident demanding a crackdown and cleanup — because it’s not easy to have homelessness on your doorstep.

But while what has transpired under “The Locks” bridge over the last week is unpleasant to witness, and surely difficult to do business next to, the story here is actually about a much larger failing.

Clearing homeless encampments — even encampments that absolutely need to be cleared, like the Jungle — does nothing to solve the bigger problem. It’s costly. It’s exhausting. It’s a traumatizing setback to those living in encampments, often forcing them to move every few months.

And — even when we remove arguments of empathy or toughness — it’s clearly not effective.

In the aftermath of last week’s Jungle sweep, examples of this futility can be seen throughout the city.

I visited “The Locks” bridge Wednesday. What I found, aside from the usual trappings of those living without shelter, was four people — all of whom previously lived in the Jungle.

“Technically, I’m in limbo,” said Saydey, a 24-year-old who was reluctant to give her last name. Until recently, she’d called the Jungle home.

Christopher Leal was also under “The Locks” bridge Wednesday afternoon. A 33-year-old who acknowledged a history of drug addiction, he, too, said the uprooting of the Jungle had left him looking for a new place to stay.

“I’m displaced right now. I don’t know where to go,” he told me.

I’m displaced right now. I don’t know where to go.

Christopher Leal, former resident of Tacoma’s Jungle homeless encampment

Want an even more glaring failure? Travel to the Tacoma Tideflats, just off Portland Avenue East.

In December, officials from the state Department of Natural Resources, once again aided by the city, cleared a homeless encampment that once exceeded 50 inhabitants. I wrote about it at the time, noting the contaminated soil, dirty from decades of heavy industrial use.

Next door to that site, as you read this? On Wednesday, I counted more than 35 makeshift shelters.

In one of those tents I found John McCracken, 49, who told me he’s been homeless in Tacoma for “about five years.” Prior to last week, he’d been living in the Jungle for “about a month, month and a half.” He traced his homelessness back to a heart attack he suffered when he was 36.

During his time in Tacoma, McCracken said he’s been moved along by an encampment cleanup at least five times — including last week’s high-profile sweep of the Jungle.

“We did it in a very humane way. On paper, we did it exactly right,” DeForrest said of the Jungle cleanup. “What do we have to show for it? From the community, we have the same complaints, just from a different area. So … even when we do it best practice, it’s not working.”

“What we’ve done is we’ve re-traumatized about 100 individuals, and relocated them,” he continued.

“We’re having this conversation right now because of how poorly the current process works.”

Yes, I’m tired of writing this column. But I’ll say it again, because it’s worth repeating:

As recent events have once again demonstrated, it’s time to find a new way of dealing with homeless encampments in Tacoma.

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