A discussion about homelessness in Tacoma, and specifically transient homelessness and the people in our community living under freeways and in the woods, is underway.
On April 20, prompted by an email from Tacoma City Councilman Robert Thoms, roughly 20 people from the Dome District, the Foss Waterway and city government crammed inside a small meeting room in the Tacoma Dome.
Thoms’ email was titled a “call to action,” and the meeting reflected its tone.
“Many residents and businesses have invested a great deal to call Tacoma home and we will ensure they don’t have to fend for themselves to address the very real and often complex issues associated with encampments and transient populations,” Thoms wrote. “WE WILL ADDRESS THIS PROBLEM IN A MEANINGFUL WAY.”
At the table, there were people like Brian Borgelt, who opened Bull’s Eye Indoor Shooting Range in 1993 and acquired Freighthouse Square in 2013. With over two decades’ experience doing business in the Dome District, Borgelt expressed frustration over what he sees as a lack of response from the city. Too much of his energy, he said, is spent dealing with issues related to homelessness, like public urination, untreated mental illness, litter and drug use.
There were representatives from the marinas along the Thea Foss. Among other, larger concerns, many shared worries that a visible increase in homeless encampments and graffiti are detracting from the area’s appeal. With the US Open less than two months away, marina owners said they fear yacht owners will get the wrong first impression of Tacoma during its moment in the spotlight. They urged the city to act fast to clean things up.
There were also representatives from Tacoma Police, BNSF Railway law enforcement and Tacoma’s Human Services Department, who, along with agencies like the state Department of Transportation and Sound Transit, are typically tasked with addressing homeless-related issues along our rails, under our roadways and in our undergrowth. All described the complexities of the issue, and the difficulties.
It’s amid this backdrop that Thoms, who represents the Dome District and Thea Foss Waterway, is pushing his plan, a response to the “numerous” complaints he says he’s received on the subject.
Thoms’ vision involves creating a coordinated “rapid response” to encampments and homeless-related calls for service, so that citizens can trust that these issues are being taken seriously.
He believes we have the services and the social safety net in place to deal the human side of the problem — with the city budgeting $4 million in general fund, grants and mental health tax money this biennium for homeless services, in addition to $500,000 from the City Council for mental health and substance abuse services. But he says enforcement needs to be more aggressive, homeless campsites need to be cleaned up more quickly, and sites then need to be secured.
He’s firing off memos at City Hall, and looking to move forward in 30-60 days.
Making a dent won’t be easy.
The problem is one that TPD and Tacoma’s Human Services Department knows well. The area under Interstate 705 is one of at least five established areas where homeless people are known to camp in Tacoma. On Thursday afternoon, a jaunt past the Department of Transportation’s “No Trespassing” sign reveals at least three active campsites.
We can’t turn our back on the people living in them.
The 2015 Homeless Point in Time count, conducted in late January, revealed a total of 1,283 homeless individuals in Pierce County, with 191 counted as chronically homeless. Of the total number, Colin DeForrest, Tacoma’s homeless services manager, says that “a large majority of these individuals are in Tacoma.” Believe it or not, these numbers actually represent a slight decline from the previous year.
The city has six shelters, all of them typically full. According to information compiled by DeForrest, the adult shelter at The Rescue Mission has 205 beds and cots, and turns away about 30 people on a daily basis. The New Nativity House has 167 beds, and turns away 70-90 people daily. The Salvation Army’s family shelter, which has 14 family rooms, six single women’s beds, and 45 overflow beds turns away 45 people a day.
Thoms is right: We must address this problem in a meaningful way. And his heart is in the right place. He wants to better connect people with services and clean up the trash faster. He’s responding to what his constituents are telling him.
As citizens, however, it’s up to us to define what “meaningful” means in the context of dealing with homelessness.
This is a conversation that can’t be dictated by frustration and anger. Any effort that simply pushes the problem out of sight, or deeper into the woods, isn’t enough.