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What Happens When You Offer Homeless People Toilets And Fresh Water? Tacoma Aims To Find Out

Will James
An encampment of tents and makeshift shelters in Tacoma's tideflats

Water and bathroom facilities are making life a little more bearable for people who live in one of Tacoma's largest encampments of homeless people.

City officials installed a water line and spigot last week, along with a row of portable toilets and sinks, near a few dozen tents and makeshift shelters in Tacoma's tideflats.

It represents a shift in the way Tacoma leaders manage a growing homeless population. Instead of forcing people off vacant lots like this, they say they are trying to make conditions cleaner and safer while they work toward longer-term solutions. 

One day this week, Racheal Rappe used some of the water to wash her feet and cool off her three-year-old Chihuahua, Baby.

She said the ability to get clean can be a matter of life and death when you live outside. A friend, she said, was recently hospitalized with potentially deadly complications from  an infection.

"He has gangrene in his foot," she said. "He couldn't walk."

Credit Will James / KNKX
Racheal Rappe splashes some water on her dog, Baby, in a tent in Tacoma's tideflats

Earlier this month, Tacoma's city council declared the city's more than 50 homeless encampments a "public health emergency," paving the way for new efforts to improve health and safety.

"The purpose of placing basic human health amenities at existing encampment sites is to address public health and safety concerns resulting from growing concentrations of people living without access to basic needs," city spokeswoman Gwen Schuler said in an email. 

These amenities are meant to be temporary. City officials plan to offer them for six weeks at most, then move residents at this encampment to a "transition site" where caseworkers will begin trying to place them in housing.

For now, though, toilets and sinks are changing day-to-day life in this lot of gravel and weeds. Some of those changes are critical, while others are more subtle.

"You don't have to go in the bushes and get thorns in your butt," said Jessie Lopez Olivas, 63, who has lived in the encampment for about a month. "And privacy. And you don't have to walk to look for water." 

Before city officials installed the water line, residents of this encampment said they got water from  outdoor spigots at businesses in this spread-out industrial area. That often meant carrying a plastic jug across some busy roads and hoping an employee was willing to help.

"I used to go with a baby stroller or shopping basket and I would go up to the people at night," said Rappe, 49. "And they'd be like, 'What are you doing?' I'm going to ask them. I'm not going to steal or take anything that doesn't belong to me." 

She said the city's recent actions make her optimistic, but she hopes they amount to more than mere public relations.

"Is it for your image, or is it to help us?" she said. "Don't pretend anymore. We're tired of that." 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.