Politics & Government

Lunch-in protest sparks conversation on Tacoma homelessness

Overcast skies and a temperature south of 70 degrees do not often make the list of conditions for an ideal picnic.

Nevertheless, Friday a group of people armed with sack lunches, homemade soup and a list of questions gathered on Earnest S. Brazill Street across the street from the Tacoma Public Library on Tacoma Avenue.

They unfurled plastic checkered tablecloths atop dusty boulders and erected signs to protest the rocks placed there by the city of Tacoma to disperse what city officials say was illicit activity.

Many criticized the boulders as a ham-fisted attempt to remove homeless people from the area.

The idea of the noon protest was to start a “community conversation” about how to address homelessness, said Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, one of those who helped organize the lunch-in. She made sack lunches at home, which included a sandwich, chips, fruit and water.

Stapled to the outside of each bag was a list of questions she hoped would allow people to start the conversation, including: “Why do you think that people gathered here? Where are they now?”

Rob McNair-Huff, a spokesman for Metropolitan Development Council who attended the gathering, said the people who once congregated at the site of the boulders haven’t gone far.

“People have moved up the street,” McNair-Huff said, gesturing uphill to the west.

James Hunter, a resident of Nativity House, said that before the boulders were there, he saw people camping on the parking strip who had nowhere else to go.

“I think it’s kind of mean they would do this to run people out,” Hunter said.

The shelters fill up quickly, he said, and there are often wait lists.

The library is just one of around 20 “encampment hot spots” around Tacoma, city officials say. Most sites are in the downtown area.

Drug use, alcohol abuse, public urination and lewd acts been reported recently at the library location, said Pam Duncan, human services division manager with the city of Tacoma.

Encampments can pose a public hazard, she said, and the city often must make repeat visits to clear out debris. Adding the boulders, which the city calls “reclamation of public sites,” could deter illegal activity.

“We are implementing a plan to address each one of them,” Duncan said.

The downtown library often serves as a rest stop for those who live on the street, said library spokesman David Domkoski. The library allows anyone, homeless included, to use computers to write resumes, use the Internet and search for jobs. There is also a 12-week program to help people learn how to present themselves for a job interview, among other lessons.

Not everyone appreciated the lunchtime protest.

“I don’t agree with your protest,” Ellen Wilt told Megan Capes, who ladled soup into disposable bowls.

“These protesters are my dear friends,” Wilt said after walking away. “They really live what they’re saying.”

But, she said, “At some point we have to say no. There has to be boundaries. These rocks represent that boundary. We have to be civilized.”

Wilt said it is hard for her to go the library because she gets harassed by those who hang out on the corner. She contends we have “come a long way in cleaning this city.

“The people they are protesting for are the nastiest people who do as they please,” she said.

The homeless are still people, said Helen McGovern-Pilant, executive director of Emergency Food Network. She brought a bag full of apples to the lunch-in and a few people grabbed them to stash in bags or eat on the spot.

“I personally don’t want to be living in a city where there are ‘those people,’ ” McGovern-Pilant said. “This is not a very dignified way to handle something that could be handled in lots of very positive ways.”

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542

kate.martin@thenewstribune.com

@KateReports

Staff photographer David Montesino contributed to this report.

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