Matt Driscoll

Tacoma’s tent city isn’t going away despite $1.6 million investment in new shelter beds

Women’s shelter coming to Tacoma Rescue Mission thanks to City of Tacoma contribution.

Tacoma City Council approves $1.6 million commitment to help mission add a 50-bed women's shelter at South Tacoma Way site.
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Tacoma City Council approves $1.6 million commitment to help mission add a 50-bed women's shelter at South Tacoma Way site.

Yes, the City of Tacoma is spending $1.6 million to help with the construction of 50 new emergency shelter beds at the Tacoma Rescue Mission’s South Tacoma Way campus. If everything goes as planned, the new shelter beds — which will primarily focus on serving single women and couples — should be ready by Christmas.

This is not a sign that Tacoma’s Dome District Stability Site — which, since it opened in 2017, has largely operated at capacity — will be closing anytime soon.

You can be forgiven, of course, if you read the news of Tacoma Rescue Mission’s impending expansion as a sign of the opposite.

Late last year, as I reported, Tacoma City Manager Elizabeth Pauli stated a goal of working with local homeless service providers and faith-based organizations to expand shelter beds in hopes of being able to close the Dome District Stability Site by the end of 2019.

The underlying message was obvious: The city, while trying its best to respond to the homelessness crisis declared in May 2017, doesn’t want to operate its big tent city into eternity.

For good reason. One, it’s expensive — along with accompanying enforcement efforts, it costs the city millions of dollars each year to run.

There also are seasoned service providers who know how to do it better.

Reading the tea leaves, however, it’s increasingly clear the conversation at City Hall has shifted. While there’s no indication that anyone with the city wants the temporary Stability Site to become permanent, it’s also safe to say at this point that closing it by the end of 2019, when its current funding runs out, is increasingly unlikely.

On Tuesday, I asked Erica Azcueta, Tacoma’s program manager for homelessness and household stability, whether the planned expansion at Tacoma Rescue Mission was related to the previously stated goal of closing the Stability Site this year.

The two things are separate, Azcueta told me bluntly.

“This project is to expand shelter capacity,” Azcueta said, describing the future of the Stability Site as a “policy decision” to be weighed by the City Council.

To critics of the Dome District Stability Site, this may come as unwelcome news. Especially if those same critics are tempted to take issue with the $1.6 million the council allocated Tuesday night to help fund the 50-bed expansion at the Tacoma Rescue Mission, which in total will cost roughly double that, according to Rescue Mission Executive Director Duke Paulson.

In reality, it should be seen as a needed acknowledgment of the situation the city is in.

There’s little question that new emergency shelter beds are needed in Tacoma. A look at the “baby math,” as one City Council member described it to me this week, lays it out.

Currently, the Tacoma Rescue Mission’s emergency men’s shelter downtown — which was built in 2000 with an intended capacity to serve 60 people — actually provides shelter to 130 to 150 people every night, according to Noah Basket, the Rescue Mission’s senior director of community engagement.

According to Duke Paulsen, the Rescue Mission’s executive director, on a recent Friday night, 25 to 30 people looking for shelter were turned away.

Overall, according to information provided during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, Tacoma’s emergency shelters turn away 60-70 individuals and families each night.

And, currently, there’s an 80-person wait list at the Dome District Stability Site.

So, no, 50 new emergency shelter beds at the Rescue Mission will not solve the problem. Far from it.

Then, there’s the not insignificant fact that emergency shelter beds are only one small piece of the puzzle.

When Tacoma’s response to its declared homelessness emergency was rolled out, Phase 3 of the three-part response rightfully identified transitional housing and permanent supportive housing as the linchpin. Without a whole lot more of it, progress would be minimal, at best.

As the city now has acknowledged, that final step has proven to be the most difficult to muster. If only someone could have seen that coming.

But that’s not to say the city has given up on it, nor should it.

Ultimately, “housing is the solution” to homelessness, Azcueta said, and she’s exactly right.

All of this leaves us with where things stand today.

The big check the city wrote Tuesday night was a step in the right direction — one that will help address a long-ago identified need.

“It’s good news,” as Azcueta said, noting that the city will continue to pursue partnerships to further expand shelter space in the city.

It certainly is.

It’s also a moment to reflect on how much work remains to be done, whether your primary objective is closing the Dome District Stability site or making real strides in addressing the crisis that made it necessary in the first place.

And the clearer-than-ever takeaway?

The solution to both is one and the same.

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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.