Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Moving the conversation on homelessness in Tacoma forward

To trace the origins of a recent uproar over the jagged boulders the city of Tacoma placed on a patch of grass on a side street next to the downtown library, you have to begin with a voice mail.

It started with a call from a reader, as stories often do. The message implored me to go take a look at “how the city is treating the homeless,” directing me to Earnest S. Brazill Street.

And so, on my way home from my daughter’s Girl Scouts meeting later that night, I asked my wife if we could veer the minivan in a slight detour to see what the caller was talking about. The kids were tired, but I was curious.

As I’d write later, the sight of the rocks was jarring.

The following day I started making calls. First, I phoned the library, where spokesman David Domkoski told me the rocks only recently appeared. Yes, they were the work of the city. No, the library hadn’t specifically asked for them.

Domkoski confirmed what all of Tacoma already knows about the stretch of Tacoma Avenue the library calls home — it has been plagued by health and public safety issues, many of them directly related to homelessness.

Drug use. Hypodermic needles. Public defecation. Low-level crimes. All of it manifests here.

Later, in a conference call with Tacoma homeless services manager Colin DeForrest and human services division manager Pamela Duncan, I was told about the reasoning behind the rocks. They called it “site hardening,” intended to dissuade loitering, criminal activity, drug use, and other health and public safety issues often associated with homelessness.

They weren’t targeting the homeless, they said, pointing out that many of the culprits were housed. The rocks were about ensuring a safe environment, and while admitting that the site hardening was intended to keep people — including the homeless — from hanging out in the spot, they promised the city was dedicated to connecting those in need with services.

Still troubled, I wrote: “I’m afraid, despite the good intentions, (the rocks) 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.

“Subtle, like pigeon-control wire for downtrodden people.”

It wasn’t long before the reactions started rolling in. Some people applauded the column. Some thought I was full of it. A lunchtime protest at the rocks was organized, questioning the wisdom of the decision.

Meanwhile, some folks at the city thought my characterization of the situation was unfair; a City Council study session was planned for Tuesday to explain everything Tacoma does to address homelessness, “in light of recent public interest.”

By Tuesday, The News Tribune’s Kate Martin had written extensively on the situation, while the Associated Press, KOMO News and others had picked up the story of the rocks.

I still believe the boulders send the wrong message, and were the wrong decision for outside the library. Dealing with homelessness, and the public health and safety concerns that go along with it, in a public space like this, raises ethical and moral dilemmas. Outside the library is not underneath the freeway. The boulders, in this location, aren’t the answer.

This isn’t simply a question of aesthetics. It’s a question of community values and what we’re reclaiming this space from: the negative activities that occur here or a class of people?

Now it’s time to move forward. I’d suggest starting with some things we should be able to agree on.

• The city does have an obligation to maintain safe and clean public spaces. City officials weren’t wrong to search for a solution to the problems outside the library, which are symptoms of much larger societal issues. Something needed to be done.

• The city’s human services staff is dedicated and hardworking. They aren’t the bad guys.

• You can question, and even criticize, a single project without the implication being that the city of Tacoma doesn’t care about the homeless.

• The city allocates significant resources toward homelessness-related services – some $4 million in general fund, grants and mental health tax money this biennium, plus an additional $500,000 in additional funding approved by the City Council for mental health and substance abuse service.

• Despite this substantial investment, the need is far greater. It’s a regional issue, not just a Tacoma issue.

• Poverty and homelessness are not crimes. Every homeless person gets to their situation differently.

At the conclusion of Tuesday’s study session, Mayor Marilyn Strickland said she believes the rocks, and the outcry they’ve caused, can be a good thing. They’ll allow the city to “highlight all the important work and resources that we are dedicating to address this very serious problem,” she declared, while at the same time fostering an important conversation about how we can do better.

Let’s continue that conversation long after this backlash over boulders has passed.

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