Politics & Government

Tacoma city officials say boulders near library were last resort

The city of Tacoma cleared a grass parking strip near the main Tacoma library of trash and hypodermic needles at least twice before resorting to dropping boulders there this month to prevent people from gathering, city officials said Monday.

City staff plan to brief the City Council on Tuesday (June 16) about such “encampment and site hardening” efforts, which have come under criticism following news coverage of the boulders’ installation. Last week, a group of people gathered to eat lunch on the boulders and talk about potential solutions to homelessness.

The city has identified seven “hot spots” for homeless encampments, said Colin DeForrest, homeless services manager for the city of Tacoma. All seven have been cleared multiple times this year, he said.

The parking strip near the library is considered part of a hot spot that includes Tacoma Avenue and other area streets. Others include locations under Interstate 705, the slope above Schuster Parkway, and the areas near Portland Avenue Community Center and the former Rogers Elementary School on the East Side.

The debris in these hot spots can include hypodermic needles, human waste, rat nests and mounds of trash, DeForrest said.

Each encampment has a management plan, DeForrest said. For the site near the library, that plan included placing a strip of boulders and trees. The trees will be installed in the fall.

The city also tries to connect the homeless with housing, mental health and other services.

“The answer is not to put rocks on the side of the street and say, ‘You can’t be here’ and ‘Get out of there’ and that’s going to be the solution to the problem,” DeForrest said.

The city placed the rocks near the library because there was a “growing feeling that it was not a safe place,” he said.

DeForrest said he thinks the tactic has worked.

“The fact that last week there were people who had lunch on them tells you right there. Those people weren’t having lunch there the week before that,” DeForrest said.

Rob McNair-Huff, who works nearby and attended last week’s boulder protest, said the people who once congregated on the parking strip have moved a few blocks uphill to the west.

DeForrest knows they have to live somewhere, but current city law does not allow people to live outside.

“We do our darnedest to get extra people into those shelters,” DeForrest said. “We get extra cots. We get extra beds.”

Some homeless will refuse help, said Tacoma Police Department spokeswoman Loretta Cool, who has worked for Nativity House, which operates a homeless shelter.

“Some people don’t want any help at all,” she said. “It’s not that they don’t want assistance. It’s that they don’t feel like they need to check in or be monitored.”

While the City Council passed a law last year that allows nonprofit organizations to host temporary homeless camps, no agency has stepped forward to start the process in Tacoma, DeForrest said.

Tacoma recently dropped boulders in one other hot spot — under I-705 near the Dock Street offramp — in partnership with the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Cara Mitchell, spokeswoman for WSDOT, said the agency clears out homeless encampments several times a year. The agency posts notices to vacate before clearing an area, she said. That includes bringing in people who can possibly help those living there.

“Our challenge is every time we clear out a homeless camp, within a very short time frame, sometimes within an hour or two, the area is reoccupied and the cycle starts all over again,” Mitchell said.

The agency has tried fencing off the area but that didn’t work, and they want to prevent people from living under the bridge to make sure state workers can safely maintain the ramps. Sometimes people living there start fires, which can harm the bridges, Mitchell said.