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Tacoma’s doing something different on homelessness

A man gets water at one of the Tacoma encampments where water and portable toilets are being provided as the city gets ready to move residents. Credit: Matt M. McKnight/Cascade Public Media

Like Seattle, Tacoma has a homelessness problem so severe that city leaders have declared a state of emergency. But the city is taking a different approach than its neighbor to the north.

Tacoma is framing its emergency declaration as one of “public health.” It’s a bit more limited than the attempts in Seattle and King County, as well as others in Portland, Los Angeles, Honolulu and the state of Hawaii, where the emergencies are more generally about homelessness itself.

“Our goal isn’t to end homelessness or to solve homelessness,” Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said. “This effort is about reducing homelessness, engaging our community, engaging the homeless population and learning what we can learn about longer-term sustainable solutions.”

Strickland estimated that 500 people are homeless in Tacoma. According to the 2017 Point in Time Count, Pierce County as a whole had more than 1,300 experiencing homelessness, with 504 unsheltered during the late January count.

Strickland said the city focused on what is happening on the ground in Tacoma, rather than trying to study what others had done with their states of emergency. “It addresses the fact that many of the people living in camps were living in squalor,” Strickland said.

Crews on previous clearings of unsanctioned encampments  found garbage and human waste. Strickland said the conditions created a health hazard both for the people in the encampments and for the surrounding residences and businesses.

The city is spending six weeks assessing the needs of those currently living in encampments as well as providing services such as handwashing stations, porta potties and showers. These services have already begun to materialize as “pop-up” cleanup sites near encampments.

Clearing the encampments will occur in the second phase, which could start after the initial phase ends June 26, as the city establishes some form of temporary, transitional centers. “Every person will have different options,” Strickland said. “Some may just need help with first and last month’s rent and they can get housed in a regular apartment. Every situation is unique.”

Based on these first two phases, the city will tackle new approaches to short-term and transitional housing.

Tacoma’s state of emergency comes on the heels of Seattle’s own homelessness emergency plan, which Mayor Ed Murray announced in September 2015 as an effort to “address the root causes” of homelessness. However, the 2017 Count Us In Survey reports 3,857 unsheltered people in Seattle compared to the 2,942 registered by the 2016 One Night Count.

Timothy Harris, founding director of Seattle’s Real Change News, says Seattle’s state of emergency largely heralded, at least in the short term, an increase in homeless sweeps.

For Tacoma’s plan to have a different effect, Harris said it will have to be more than a justification for sweeps. “If they are offering them real options and folks are being worked with to access services, then that’s the right way to approach it,” said Harris.

Theresa Power-Drutis, Executive Director of Tacoma nonprofit New Connections, says she’s already seen the state of emergency make in impact. “The county human services group has got people putting in serious time coordinating services because they’re being told this is a short-term burst,” Power-Drutis said. “Then we’ll see what we can do to sustain it.”

Despite the state of emergency’s focus on public health and cleaning up encampments, Power-Drutis is hopeful it will help reduce homelessness. She’s been lobbying for safe spaces for unsheltered folks for years, and public safety provided the frame that got people on board.

“It’s not a bad thing to clean up the neighborhood because small businesses have really suffered,” Power-Drutis said. “People walk away when they have to walk through a gauntlet of campers because it’s just not something that acceptable to a lot of people who are trying to get a key made or go to the grocery store.”

Real Change’s Harris said that where the city allocates resources will define how successful it can be. The city is still working on a budget for its efforts.

“The question that always arises with additional outreach is the question ‘outreach to where?’” Harris said. “An overloaded system that doesn’t have the capacity to take on new people isn’t particularly helpful.”

The capacity for shelter is already lower than the need, said Noah Baskett, senior director of community engagement at the Tacoma Rescue Mission. The men’s shelter, built 15 years ago with a 60-bed capacity, currently houses around 115 people per night.

Basket said he’s hopeful that the phased approach of the state of emergency will lead the city to an increase in shelter capacity.

Elizabeth Burris, a council member of the New Tacoma Neighborhood Council, said she’s aware the state of emergency isn’t going to end homelessness in Tacoma, but can already see improvements at the encampments. “I’m just very grateful to see toilets,” Burris said.

Strickland said the city will measure the success of the state of emergency by comparing the numbers and seeing how many people are still living in encampments, how many are not and how many are permanently housed. They’ll also track how many neighbors or businesses call 911 to report a crisis on the street or someone trespassing by camping on a property.

Meanwhile in Seattle, a year and a half into its own homelessness state of emergency, the end is nowhere in sight as the unsheltered population continues to increase. With its focus on public health, Tacoma has a much more tangible goal in mind.

“Once encampments filled with filth and drugs and human waste don’t exist anymore, we can say the emergency itself has been dealt with,” Strickland said.

She said that there will still be people whose long-term housing needs must be addressed. “But,” she said, “at least the public health emergency has been addressed.”

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