Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Throwing rocks at Tacoma’s homeless problem isn’t the answer

Let it be known: There is homelessness in Tacoma.

Avoiding it isn’t easy. Like it does in nearly every city of Tacoma’s size, the problem manifests with striking visuals. People huddle in doorways and under freeway overpasses. Our shelters fill to capacity. Makeshift tents appear in plain view and in the hidden corners of our urban landscape.

There’s the trash, the public urination, the drug use and untreated mental illness.

Homelessness isn’t pretty. It’s difficult to look at and live with. The problem is impossible to sweep completely under the rug.

More importantly, doing so is detrimental.

Which is exactly what makes what happened last week near the downtown Tacoma Main Library so jarring.

Specifically, I’m talking about the massive rocks that suddenly appeared on a small strip of grass running up Earnest S. Brazill Street at Tacoma Avenue South, just south of the library. If you’re familiar with life downtown, you’re probably familiar with this sliver of green running up the block, as it regularly attracts a homeless population in search of a place to take a load off. Lately, the stretch had been increasingly full of tents, sleeping bags and the various belongings of Tacoma’s most vulnerable citizens.

Until Wednesday, that is, when the Flintstones quarry-size boulders showed up.

Subtle, like pigeon-control wire for downtrodden people.

Homeless Services Manager Colin DeForrest describes it as “site hardening,” saying it’s “one strategy to remedy multiple issues in that area,” which include drug use and other illegal activities. Eventually, he says, trees will be planted as well, which should soften the visual shock. He’s also quick to point out that the rocks weren’t placed with a single demographic in mind. “This was not specifically done to get rid of the homeless,” he says. “We don’t want to have people congregating there, period.”

“We’re always looking for innovative, outside-the-box techniques to both connect individuals to services and also create a safe community,” DeForrest continues. “Innovations can look a lot of different ways.”

That’s true. And for the library patrons afraid to use the parking lot, or the students at Bates Technical College currently too scared to use the sidewalk, perhaps these rocks will make a real difference. DeForrest tells me there was a team conducting homeless outreach near the new rocks on Monday afternoon. That’s excellent news.

Still, I can’t help but find the jagged boulders troubling. I’m afraid, despite the good intentions, they say: When pushed, Tacoma will take the easy way out, choosing to drive the homeless away like an unsightly nuisance. Even if it means trucking in gigantic boulders.

That’s a shame — particularly because it’s not what we’ve come to expect from Tacoma. City programs such as Housing First, which focuses on getting people into permanent housing, have shown success.

Many others in this community also refuse to look away.

Just one of many examples of Tacoma’s compassion can be found downtown every Sunday morning, mere blocks from the library, at Urban Grace Church. It’s there that a group of 60-some volunteers gather — a diverse group with ties to several local churches and community organizations; with some volunteers arriving as early as 5 a.m. — to serve what’s simply known as the “Community Breakfast” to the homeless and those struggling to make ends meet. They’ve been doing it, without fanfare, for the last 20 years.

Led by Willie Stewart, a 79-year-old native Texan with a long history as an educator on Tacoma’s East Side and the first black principal in the city, the Community Breakfast represents much more than just the best meal many of the city’s homeless people get all week. It represents what we’re capable of when we’re willing to engage with the difficult issues homelessness presents rather than hiding our eyes.

Stewart tells me the first breakfast was served April 23, 1995. Two people showed up. The next week it was four. The third week it was 12.

On the Sunday I visited, it was closer to 185, a turnout Stewart describes as small. He and Charolette Summers, an 81-year-old Midland resident who also has been part of the Community Breakfast since the beginning, recall mornings where 500 people came through the door.

“They’ve become family to me,” Stewart says of the people served by the breakfast. “We do it because there’s a need. We love them and care about them.”

On this morning, I sit down next to a young African American man who says his name is Keith. He tells me he comes nearly every week. When I ask him where he’s staying he says “wherever.”

Then I ask him about the rocks by the library.

He knows exactly what I’m talking about, and doesn’t seem surprised.

“They don’t want us there,” Keith says with an experienced shrug, between bites. We leave it at that.

Homelessness is here, in Tacoma. The sooner we accept that fact, and face it head on, the better.

Boulders aren’t going to help.