Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: False start highlights challenge of opening a Tacoma tent city

No one said it would be easy.

And, to date, it certainly hasn’t been.

The latest roadblock for the grass-roots group known as Tent City Tacoma, and more recently Destiny Village, came over the weekend.

Sunday could have been an important day for the group, which is trying to establish a tent city for the homeless and now boasts hundreds of supporters.

Planning had been underway for months. It was supposed to culminate in something big — or at least the start of something big.

It turned out to be anything but.

I’d heard rumblings for some time that the group had identified a spot of land in Spanaway, not far from the edge of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, as a potential home for a tent city. Sunday had been circled on the calendar as the day that campers were to start moving in.

The idea was simple, and a bit guerilla: Find a location owned by the state, set up camp there, then wait to see what happens.

The gamble, an act of desperation that borrows a game plan utilized by the Occupy movement, is that state officials, when faced with a camp full of homeless people living in a well-run and well-maintained camp, would think twice and not immediately move to evict.

The hope was that the group could buy 30 to 90 days to capitalize on the momentum and, buoyed by the exposure, find a sanctioned site.

That was the idea, anyway.

It is frustrating, but I don’t look at it as a setback.

Neal Rogers, Tent City Tacoma spokesman

I started getting phone calls around 7:30 a.m. Sunday. At first, the news seemed positive.

According to Neal Rogers, who acts as a media liaison for the group, as many as 30 volunteers and a handful of would-be campers had shown up to get to work. Within a few hours, tents had been erected on pallets. Even portable toilets were in place.

But there’d been one crucial miscalculation.

The spot of land they’d identified for their camp doesn’t belong to the state at all.

It’s private property.


As Rogers tells it, the first sign of trouble came around noon. He said it became painfully apparent when the person who owns the land showed up and reacted as one might expect: aggrieved and somewhat baffled.

“Apparently somebody told him there was a bunch of activity on his land, and he found us pretty much already set up,” Rogers tells me of what was surely an awkward interaction. “It was a misunderstanding. … He was understandably ticked, but by the same token, he knew it was an honest mistake.”

The campers quickly packed up, cleaned up and left.

“Obviously someone dropped the ball on behalf of the group and caused them and the volunteers a huge inconvenience,” the owner of the land tells me, asking that his name not be disclosed.

“It was quite a scare for us,” he continues. “We truly felt violated.”

As far as the effort to start a tent city goes, I’m told Sunday is being viewed as a “learning experience,” and this won’t be the end of it.

Time will tell.

“It is frustrating, but I don’t look at it as a setback,” Rogers says, pointing to the support that the process of establishing a tent city has revealed.

It was quite a scare for us. ... We truly felt violated.

Owner of land where Tent City Tacoma mistakenly tried to set up Sunday

I’m not writing about this simply to point out a substantial and — let’s be clear — illegal gaffe on the part of a group of volunteers who’ve taken on the herculean task of setting up a tent city for the Tacoma area’s homeless population.

Yes, it was a major mistake and one that could have been easily avoided. But it also illustrates the challenge of starting a tent city in Tacoma, including steep permitting fees and a requirement that a camp must move every 90 days.

Remember: Tacoma does have a tent city ordinance on the books, intended to provide guidelines for what it takes to establish one.

But if those guidelines are so onerous that trekking out to Spanaway and doing things like what happened Sunday starts to sound like a good idea, then it begs the question: Why have an ordinance at all?

Unless, of course, that’s the point.