Matt Driscoll

City needs to communicate its homelessness plan better or face losing allies

Site of homeless transition center, lack of consult troubles Puyallup Avenue property owners

Married couple Kate Lantaff and Zak Kinneman own property on Puyullap Avenue, about two blocks from where the City of Tacoma plans to open a temporary homeless "transition center." They and neighboring business owners are troubled about the lack o
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Married couple Kate Lantaff and Zak Kinneman own property on Puyullap Avenue, about two blocks from where the City of Tacoma plans to open a temporary homeless "transition center." They and neighboring business owners are troubled about the lack o

Zak Kinneman and Kate Lantaff are not who I was expecting them to be.

The married couple owns property on Puyallup Avenue in Tacoma, not far from where the city plans to open a temporary homeless “transition center” later this month.

Kinneman reached out to me shortly after my latest column on that topic was published.

I expected Kinneman and Lantaff to be angry. I expected them to tell me all the reasons why the city’s new temporary shelter wouldn’t work.

I expected them to tell me the whole thing was a terrible idea and rattle off all the things they feared the tent city would bring to their neighborhood.

I was surprised to learn that’s not who Kinneman and Lantaff are.

Yes, they had a beef with the city. But it wasn’t because they feared the temporary shelter.

They’re mad because they first read about the city’s plan in the newspaper.

And that’s a problem, because what I gleaned from speaking with them and others is that there are people in that neighborhood willing to support Tacoma’s homelessness plan.

They just want to be part of the process. And they should be.

We read about it in the TNT, in your column.

Zak Kinneman, on the first time he heard the city council had decided to put its new homeless transition center on Puyallup Avenue

I also learned that Kinneman and Lantaff could be strong allies of the city as it moves forward with its plan.

Lantaff has a daughter who battles mental-health issues and addiction and who’s been homeless off-and-on since at least 2015. Kinneman was a lawyer until he was sent to prison in 2005 on multiple charges of first- and second-degree theft, stemming from unauthorized withdrawals from a trust account.

Their personal experiences contribute to an understanding of the challenges many of those experiencing homelessness. Kinneman’s 18-months prison stretch also has given them a soft spot for the power of redemption.

They’re here, in the neighborhood where the city’s new temporary homeless shelter will be, and they’re willing to help.

And they’re not alone.

“We want to learn how we can be a part of that solution,” Dome Business District Association president Janice McNeal told me. “But we have to be at the table.”

Which is why the city’s lack of engagement with this neighborhood, up until very recently, is so unfortunate.

Kinneman estimated that the new shelter will be “less than a quarter mile” from the property his family owns — currently home to two tenants, L D Kitchen and Bath and Freight Northwest.

“We read about it in the TNT, in your column,” he told me of the first time he heard the city council had decided to put its new tent city down the street.

Kinneman acknowledged having concerns about safety, security and what will happen when money for the site runs out.

But what bugs him most of all it is his lack of involvement in the process.

“I think the burning issue for us, really, is communication,” he said.

The extent to which the city attempted to reach out to neighboring businesses in its emergency push to better address homelessness — and whether it did enough — is debatable.

City staff visited six businesses adjacent to the new homeless shelter site five days prior to it being selected by the City Council, according to Gwen Schuler, Tacoma’s media and communications director.

After the vote, from June 9-12, staff canvassed the entire district, speaking to a total of 66 business owners and community members about the plan. Invitations were extended to a community meeting, which took place Thursday and included Mayor Marilyn Strickland and City Councilman Robert Thoms.

Still, by this point the city was playing catch-up. A cynic might suggest that, from a strategic standpoint, dealing with the blowback might have been preferable to confronting concerns before the decision was made.

It’s easier to ask forgiveness than seek permission, in other words.

Thoms doesn’t believe that’s what happened, but he’s adamant that outreach and communication need to be better, especially as the city’s three-step homelessness plan proceeds.

I don’t believe it was out of malice. I believe it’s incompetency.

City Councilman Robert Thoms on the city’s lack of communication with the neighborhood where the new temporary homeless shelter will be

He calls the failure to do so earlier an “idiosyncrasy of bureaucracy” exacerbated by the “unprecedented speed” with which the city was moving to address what’s been declared an emergency.

“I don’t believe it was out of malice,” Thoms said of the lack of communication. “I believe it’s incompetency.”

He promised the city would do better.

Part of that effort involved the Thursday meeting, where members of the Dome District and surrounding communities got one of their first chances to ask questions and hear the city’s plan firsthand.

Kinneman said he left the meeting “very pleased” but that other people expressed “a lot of concern and anger about the lack of notice.”

“I think they want to make this work,” he said of the city. “They know we are motivated and willing to work with them. But people are skeptical and worried that it will get out of control once the newness wears off.”

Lantaff said she believes the plan can succeed.

“It can work, provided the city of Tacoma keeps its promises and does what it says what it can do,” she said. “We’re willing to give them a shot, but they have to involve the community.”

That’s one more entry on the list of significant challenges the city now faces as it prepares to open its first temporary transition center in just over a week.