Politics & Government

Tacoma to refine homeless encampments ‘site-hardening’ strategy

Future efforts to discourage criminal activity and homelessness in Tacoma’s public spaces are likely to be more subtle than a pile of boulders.

After the city dropped rocks on a grass parking strip across from the city’s downtown library this month to deter people from congregating there, a couple dozen people protested the strategy last week with a lunch-in at the spot.

City officials said Monday the method was a last resort.

In a lengthy presentation to the City Council on Tuesday, city staff explained why the city needed to “harden” the strip with large rocks to protect public health and safety.

The rocks seemed like a good idea at the time, said Colin DeForrest, the homeless services manager for the city of Tacoma. The original idea was to replace the groups of people sleeping and using drugs there with an attractive row of boulders and trees, maybe even an art piece.

This is the wrong time of year to plant trees, so the city spent $9,674 to buy, haul and place the boulders, many of which will be moved after trees are brought in this fall.

“Am I proud of what’s out there now? No,” DeForrest said. “It’s definitely been a learning process for me.”

Councilman David Boe, an architect by trade, said the city’s attempt at “site-hardening” left something to be desired from an urban design standpoint.

“If it’s done really, really well, you never realize it’s been done,” Boe said. “By the library did not have that subtlety.”

City Manager T.C. Broadnax said he, too, thought the boulders were out of context with the surrounding area.

“We are going to talk about how to transition away” from that look, Broadnax said. “Future site-hardening efforts … will not resemble that.”

Staff also explained the breadth of services different nonprofit groups and the city offer to homeless who live in the area. Though Tacoma officials say they are doing what they can, more than 100 people are still turned away each day from the six shelters within the city limits.

“The broader conversation (on homelessness) needs to be a regional one,” Broadnax said.