Matt Driscoll

Motel shut down for meth might soon house the city’s homeless

It’s been called infamous. It’s been called notorious.

It’s been called “meth-infested” and “a den of drugs and prostitution,” as it was the last time the News Tribune wrote about it.

It was even called unfit for human habitation when the city and health department boarded it up back in November.

But the Calico Cat — or, I should say, the motel formerly known as the Calico Cat — is poised to make a comeback.

The motel at 8821 Pacific Ave. has a new sign, new paint, and a new name: the Pacific Lodge. And, after what the owner describes as an $80,000 cleanup, no more methamphetamine residue contaminating the walls.

And one day soon it couldcould, mind you — help to ease the city’s homelessness emergency.

At a study session earlier this month, city officials, including the mayor, dropped that intriguing and surprising possibility.

The idea is to partner with the owners to turn the motel into short-term transitional housing for those the city hopes to help lift out of homelessness through its three-phase plan. It’s too early to say what form a potential partnership might take, but city officials said they’re not interested in purchasing the motel.

It makes serious sense, though, despite the fact that housing the homeless at a location with a long history of crime and drug issues is sure to raise some eyebrows and challenges.

Fact is, motels like the Calico Cat have long served as de facto shelters and temporary housing options for those experiencing homelessness in Pierce County. But they’ve done so without the necessary structure and oversight.

In the past, a significant number of the motel’s occupants were there because their rooms were secured by behavioral health and homeless service providers. It was a last resort, of sorts, for those fortunate enough to find the help.

But there were significant problems with this arrangement, obviously.

A deal to put the city in charge of running the show would undoubtedly make life better for all parties involved.

The upgrades and added security measures the city could bring would be good for occupants and the surrounding community, while the unique partnership would play a small part in solving Tacoma’s transitional housing crunch.

While nothing is official, Mayor Marilyn Strickland confirmed this week that the idea of the city partnering with the Pacific Lodge is on the table.

Meanwhile, city spokeswoman Gwen Schuler said in a statement that the city has met with the Pacific Lodge’s owners to “discuss the possibility of utilizing their location as a potential short-term transitional housing option,” but added “no commitments or agreements have been made.”

The family that owns the Pacific Lodge is receptive to the idea, and hopeful.

“Right now, we’re still going to meetings with (the city). They’re not sure yet. They’re still figuring it out,” 28-year-old Andrew Kim, whose family has owned the property since 2014, told me Tuesday. “It could backfire, for all I know. But … it appeals to us because I think that once the city takes over, it will be less problems.”

Given the history here, it seems like a safe assumption.

When the motel was closed, police reported having been called to the property 215 times that year. There had been a shooting the same week, and a wanted felon had been arrested with drugs and multiple guns.

Meanwhile, tests revealed methamphetamine contamination in a majority of the motel’s rooms.

“We’re not from around here. So we really didn’t know what exactly we were getting into,” Kim said of his family’s leap into the motel business after a history in the restaurant industry.

A family of Korean descent, Kim said they arrived in the United States in 1998. They came here “to start our life,” he said.

Three years ago, they invested everything they had into a business they knew nothing about.

“In order to purchase this, we … sold our house – our only home. We had nothing else left after that,” Kim said. “We were living out of the office.”

Now, seven months after the family’s motel was abruptly closed, the re-branded Pacific Lodge is eying a return to operation — one way or another. It either will be in partnership with the city to provide housing for the homeless, he said, or as a motel, as it’s been in the past.

The stage is set.

The motel’s business license was reinstated in April. That same month, after lengthy meth decontamination, the health department gave the go-ahead for humans to return.

Kim described the experience of being shut down as stressful, traumatic and expensive. He said his family has put roughly $500,000 — everything they had, once again — into getting the property back up and running.

“We’re basically starting from square one,” he said.

Kim also said they’ve learned from their past mistakes, in part through guidance and advice offered from the city.

“We’re going to change it completely, 180 degrees,” he promised.

The work at the Pacific Lodge has included renovating the rooms and adding extra lighting and surveillance cameras.

Kim said that the financial realities of the situation — the motel is the family’s “only livelihood” and has been closed for more than half a year — mean they’ll have to open by early August at the latest. If they don’t, they’ll run out of money.

He’s hoping to strike a deal with the city, he said, so the erstwhile Calico Cat could serve a larger purpose while helping to ensure it doesn’t fall back into its past.

“It will be better for the community, and it will be better for the (homeless) emergency that’s happening right now,” Kim said.

He has a point.