Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Readers offer suggestions on homelessness, critiques of plastic bag ban

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It’s officially the holiday season. In that spirit, let’s grab some eggnog and dive into my Santa bag of reader mail.

In regard to my Nov. 28 column on homelessness in Tacoma, and specifically city’s encampment hot spots, Barbara writes:

I wonder if the idea has been floated to turn the old Puget Sound Hospital into a homeless shelter for the winter since it is no longer going to be torn down to build a new county building. It seems that a shelter would be a good use of the building. … Worth a thought.

Identifying new potential shelter locations is worth a thought. And — with the shortage of emergency shelter beds in Tacoma, where roughly 150 individuals get turned away on an average (nonfreezing) night — there are a lot of people giving it one.

At the first inclement weather planning meeting of the year, attended by city staff and nearly all of Tacoma’s shelter providers, the subject of finding other locations certainly came up. There are a number that would potentially work — the empty Tacoma Avenue homeless shelter, which closed this year with the opening of the new Nativity House, is just one example.

I wonder if the idea has been floated to turn the old Puget Sound Hospital into a homeless shelter for the winter since it is no longer going to be torn down to build a new county building.

Barbara, News Tribune reader

But there are significant hurdles besides simply identifying a potential space. As always, it comes down to money and politics; operating emergency shelters isn’t cheap, and the service providers who do it are already jockeying for limited resources. Many also wonder whether opening another shelter — instead of, say, more permanent housing — would be the best use of these limited resources.

Plus, as my column highlighted, a number of homeless people in our community simply aren’t interested in a shelter bed.

Which brings us to Bill, who writes:

For the most part, these are law abiding people who need a safe place to camp, good drainage, potable water, and toilets. … Perhaps our towns and larger neighborhoods should be encouraged to create places like this in unused land near public transportation.

I think the closest we can hope to get to this would be the creation of a tent city — either within city limits or somewhere close.

At last check, the group trying to organize a tent city in Tacoma — which would feature nearly all of the amenities Bill mentions — was still hard at work. And according to Bud Nye, one of the most vocal members of the group, there’s been solid progress recently.

First, though, some of the challenges associated with creating a tent city in Tacoma:

The city’s Temporary Homeless Camps Ordinance, which established a permitting process and developed standards for tent cities on property “owned or controlled” by religious organizations, has been on the books for well over a year. The ordinance requires tent cities created within city limits to move frequently – as often as four times a year.

The ordinance also calls for each tent city location in Tacoma to pony up a $1,500 permit fee. That’s potentially as much as $6,000 for one year, if four locations are identified.

For a grassroots effort, that’s a sizable ask.

Still, Nye tells me there’s big news coming, possibly soon. While things are still developing, our area may be getting a tent city for Christmas.

In my opinion, that’s very good news.

(Your plastic bag column) did not address the benefit of disposable plastic bags that always seems to get overlooked: their utility for garbage disposal.

Jim, News Tribune reader

Finally, in regard to my Nov. 30 column on the potential of a plastic bag ban in Tacoma, Jim writes:

(Your plastic bag column) did not address the benefit of disposable plastic bags that always seems to get overlooked: their utility for garbage disposal. … Doesn’t banning just push fastidious folks like me to buy other and heftier plastic bags for this purpose?

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that I received a lot of reader feedback regarding the potential of plastic bag restrictions in Tacoma.

And perhaps it should be equally unsurprising that many people wrote to me about all the ways they reuse their plastic bags — the most common being as garbage bags or for pet waste.

After a week of passionate emails, I know this is something people take very seriously.

Still, no one is entitled to free plastic bags — even to clean up after Spot. And reusing a plastic bag once does not make it a sound environmental practice. Recycling plastic bags has serious drawbacks and limitations, too.

Bottom line: There was a time before free disposable plastic bags. And there will be a time after free disposable plastic bags.

At some point we have to decide to stop being a throw-away society, by choice or necessity. The only real question is when we do it, and how much we’ll mess things up before we get there.

Would banning plastic bags solve the world’s problems? Of course not. But, unless you’re a plastic bag salesman, what would it really hurt?

In the meantime, I suggest looking into biodegradable garbage bags. They’re relatively cheap. And they make them for pet waste, too.

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