Matt Driscoll

The governor, anyway, thinks Tacoma is handling homelessness in a constructive way

It was part field trip, part meet-and-greet, part listen and learn.

On Thursday afternoon, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and his wife, Trudi, toured Tacoma’s Dome District stability site — the multi-million dollar tent city that serves as the most prominent example of Tacoma’s response to its declared homelessness emergency.

Going in, Inslee acknowledged he didn’t know much about the site — it was his first visit.

Going out, he could offer only “first impressions.”

During the interim — a nearly hour-long tour, during which he was joined by Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and met a number of current residents — the governor was nonetheless left with the sense that the City of Destiny was doing something right.

“I’ve got to tell you: I’m very impressed with this particular type of arrangement,” Inslee said shortly after his visit.

In some corners of Tacoma, the mere suggestion that the city’s response to homelessness is worth emulating elsewhere — whether with the creation of the stability site or everything else the city has tried since 2017, including increased enforcement measures — is sure to inspire cynicism and side eye.

Some will say the city needs to do more to offer housing and shelter. Others will say the city needs to do more to “crack down.”

Still others — and the vast majority, I’d suspect — are left somewhere in between, concerned by the human toll of individuals forced to live outdoors while harboring a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the city’s plan for dealing with it.

Unfettered cheerleaders, meanwhile, remain hard to find.

Standing not far from the stability site’s chain-link entrance, Inslee provided a ringing endorsement for the delicate tightrope Tacoma has been attempting to walk in its response to homelessness.

Whether he realized it or not.

Will that be an unsatisfying answer for some in Tacoma? Absolutely.

Does the governor have some valid points all the same?

It would be hard to argue otherwise, especially with evidence in his midst.

First and foremost, to Inslee, Tacoma’s stability site seems to be doing exactly what its name suggests — helping individuals stabilize.

While the going has been slow and the results have been less than anyone hoped, the site has found individual success stories by offering a level of privacy and dignity that doesn’t always exist in more traditional shelters. It also provides services and support necessary to truly lift people out of homelessness.

“I think (the stability site) embodies some of the values that I think work, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Inslee said. “We’re looking for success.”

At the same time, Inslee didn’t shy away from the need for at least some enforcement. The governor said “ it’s fair” for the public to ask for parks and public spaces free of homeless encampments as long there’s “an alternative that is healthy and has a path to get into a living situation.”

“We’ve got to get out of butting heads on this subject. We need to do both,” the governor said of the need for a multi-pronged approach.

Like it or not, that’s exactly what Tacoma is trying to do.

Sometimes it even works.

A few feet away from the press gaggle stood Jayson Chambers — one of the first people to move into the Dome District stability site after it opened.

Chambers watched as Inslee stood before The News Tribune’s camera to sing the praises of the place he called home for more than a year.

Chambers, 39, doesn’t live at the Dome District stability site anymore because it helped him kick heroin and, eventually, move into an apartment in Puyallup, he said. The stability site, he contended, “saved his life.”

Chambers, who spent five years living on the streets of Tacoma, is certain of it.

If Chambers sounds familiar, it’s because KNKX’s Will James profiled his journey out of homelessness earlier this year.

It’s a story worth reading, but the takeaway is succinct: For Chambers, like most, ending the cycle of homelessness and addiction took a long time, and the path to success wasn’t linear.

It remains a work in progress and he couldn’t have done it without help.

“You’ve really got no excuses here,” Chambers said. “If you want to, and you really do want to get into housing and not be a slave to drugs anymore, this place can help you do it.”

By the time Chambers uttered these words, Inslee’s big black SUV had departed.

But you got the sense Washington’s governor had heard the message loud and clear.

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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.
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