Matt Driscoll

Taxpayers and homeless people deserve better than Pam Roach’s latest harebrained idea

The newer section of the Pierce County Jail houses inmates in dormitory-style settings, supervised by a corrections officer. County Councilwoman Pam Roach says unused areas of the jail could be opened to the homeless, but Sheriff Paul Pastor says it’s a bad, simplistic idea.
The newer section of the Pierce County Jail houses inmates in dormitory-style settings, supervised by a corrections officer. County Councilwoman Pam Roach says unused areas of the jail could be opened to the homeless, but Sheriff Paul Pastor says it’s a bad, simplistic idea. peter.haley@thenewstribune.com

The jail is Pam Roach’s wall.

It’s a political gimmick. It’s an impractical oversimplification. It’s something frustrated voters might be tempted to rally behind, unencumbered by the realities or the reasons they’re being played for fools.

Roach’s latest attention-grabbing maneuver — using the public dime on a harebrained mailer to give air to a bad idea for housing Pierce County’s homeless population — is likely little more than deception.

In fact, if there’s a difference between President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall and Roach’s big idea, it’s this: The wall, for all its obvious shortcomings, still might be built.

Opening up the county jail as a homeless shelter on the other hand?

It’s simply not going to happen because it simply doesn’t make sense.

The sheriff knows it. Other elected leaders know it. And, deep down, I suspect Roach knows it.

If I’m right, that knowledge is precisely what makes Roach’s grandstanding so toxic.

Not only does her proposal add nothing of merit or substance to the county’s ongoing response to homelessness, but introducing it to voters and demanding it be considered as a legitimate solution risk undercutting and derailing things that might actually help.

At best, it’s a waste of time.

The fact is, it’s probably worse.

As The News Tribune’s Sean Robinson recently reported, Roach, using her county communications budget, sent a mailer to constituents last month. The premise was merely a question, the councilwoman said.

Should we open 700 vacant jail cells to the homeless?

Never mind that it featured a picture of the wrong building, and a vacancy estimate that Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor described as way too high.

The picture — featuring the older jail, which is full, instead of the new one, which does have some currently unused “pods” — could have been a simple oversight. Mistakes happen.

Greatly overstating the potential capacity, on the other hand, points at something disingenuous.

So do the other key factors Roach’s innocent “question” conveniently ignores.

There’s no mention of the substantial cost of retrofitting a facility designed to house criminal offenders and no acknowledgment of the sizable liability concerns for the county.

There’s no recognition of the surely prohibitive challenge of mixing populations, and no admission of the very real restrictions imposed by a federal lawsuit and the potential penalties for overcrowding.

Why? Because this is a stunt, not a real proposal.

Unfortunately, diagnosing it is the easy part, a fact Roach likely also comprehends.

So what’s the real danger?

Roach told The News Tribune that 67 percent of constituents who have responded to the mailer now support the idea.

In other words, it’s out there now, and the county’s real leaders will have to contend with it as they search for real answers.

In the midst of a growing crisis, that’s the last thing anyone needs.

“I would have preferred the opportunity to explain why I do not support the use of jail space for homelessness,” Pastor wrote in response to Roach’s mailer, listing risk and liability as his “primary” concerns.

“There may be a number of things which you are not aware of in the area of jail operations,” the sheriff continued.

I suppose that could be true. Viewed charitably, Roach could simply be unaware of all the reasons her latest idea is a supremely misguided one. Her mailer could be viewed as symptomatic of an elected official who fails to grasp the challenges presented by one of the most pressing crises our community faces.

Or, it could be something else. It could be a calculated attempt to hijack the dialogue. It could be an effort sell voters an effortless solution and then play the part of the slighted and ignored straight-shooter — for political benefit — when the idea inevitably falls on its face.

Put bluntly, Roach could know precisely what she’s doing, which seems far more likely — and far more dangerous.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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