Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Tent cities are near, but what’s next is most important for the homeless

The work was brisk, the nights likely long and stressful.

In just over a month’s time, the City of Tacoma came up with and embarked upon a visionary and pragmatic effort to address homelessness in Tacoma.

Phase 2 of that effort came Tuesday when the City Council dove into the tent-city business with a unanimous vote to appropriate $3.4 million to that effort.

For now, those “temporary emergency shelters” and their big-ticket price will grab the headlines.

But without the success of Phase 3 of this grand plan, everything else will be for naught.

And Phase 3 is the hardest part of all.

It will involve securing temporary transitional housing for people who find themselves homeless. That means houses, apartments, motel rooms. Actual roofs over heads, not tents under a larger tent that are about to be erected near the corner of Portland and Puyallup avenues.

In other words, we’ll need a lot more of what’s currently in very short supply.

If that sounds like a daunting prospect, it’s because it is.

As Mayor Marilyn Strickland told me Wednesday, “This whole thing could fail miserably for all I know. But what we have been doing wasn’t working … and we had to try something new.”

To the city’s credit, a number of forward-thinking options for increasing transitional housing and affordable-housing options are being considered. That includes potentially utilizing rooms at closed motels like the Calico Cat, building campuses of tiny homes or container homes, and working on policy changes to make affordable-housing options more available.

The city says it also will be realistic about what, exactly, the people who make up Tacoma’s homeless population need to help them break out of the cycle of sleeping outside, and alleviate the suffering that comes with it.

If that means long-term, around-the-clock mental-health care for some of those folks, that’s what will be pursued.

Meanwhile, Tacoma’s first tent city is scheduled to be operational June 26. That’s less than three weeks’ time.

For now, the city estimates it will have the capability to serve 80 to 100 residents — possibly as many as 120 — and that operating that temporary shelter through December will cost just over $2 million.

It’ll be designed to serve those believed to have the biggest challenges to securing permanent housing — largely, the chronically homeless.

Most come from a longstanding, unauthorized encampment known as “the Compound.” It was there last month that the city instituted Phase 1 of its overall plan, so-called “mitigation” work that provided toilets and other basic necessities.

The vision for Tacoma’s new tent city, as I’ve previously reported, is for tents within a tent. It will feature portable toilets, hand-washing stations, on-site showers and laundry, garbage services and 24-hour security.

Tacoma police will be tasked with investigating drug dealing, drug use, prostitution and other crimes.

Another round of mitigation work could come in August, along with an increase in the city’s insurance coverage to cover it all.

City Manager Elizabeth Pauli is expected to report back to the council then, possibly to ask for more money.

City officials frequently use the word “temporary” to describe their foray into the tent-city business. That surely has political and policy-based reasons, and practical ones, as the ongoing price of operating such emergency shelters soon would become unsustainable if continued indefinitely.

Getting out of that business won’t be easy, especially considering the woefully underfunded nature of both behavioral-health and affordable-housing services throughout the county and region.

But, again, it’s also the only way any of this works.

At the City Council’s Tuesday afternoon study session, Pauli acknowledged that increasing short-term transitional housing options is where Tacoma’s homelessness plan “really bumps up against the system … and root causes (of homelessness).”

She also described it as “the most complicated … and most spendy” part.

Pauli’s right.

Tacoma is taking a leap of faith, believing it can be done.

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune