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Tacoma Wants To Move Homeless People Into A Giant Tent. Will They Go?

Will James
Workers put up a frame for a 100-by-70-foot tent that will cover part of a sanctioned encampment for homeless people in Tacoma

Tacoma officials are at a critical point in their new plan to manage homelessness.

This week, city leaders are attempting to move an entire encampment of homeless people to a new site overseen by the city, much of which will be covered by a gigantic tent.

That means convincing dozens of people to voluntarily pack their belongings, abandon their shelters, and accept the rules of the sanctioned encampment, located a mile away.

Tacoma officials said city employees and service providers have been preparing people to make the move. But, for residents of the unsanctioned encampment, that means leaving a place some have called home for months. 

The once-vacant lot is covered in elaborately-crafted shelters made from plywood, tarps, and wooden pallets. Some have furniture: lounge chairs, shelves, a desk. 

On Friday, police officers were walking shelter to shelter, handing out notices that all property must be cleared out by 7 p.m. on June 30. 

Credit Will James / KNKX
Eric Bobenhouse, right, works on his bicycle in an encampment of homeless people in Tacoma's tideflats

Nearby, Eric Bobenhouse was tinkering with his bicycle. He said he looks forward to leaving this encampment in an isolated, industrial corner of Tacoma's tideflats.


The city's sanctioned encampment, he said, is closer to convenience stores.


"We don't have to travel a mile just to get the things we need," he said. "Plus, it's probably a better spot where we're supposed to be. Apparently, we're supposed to be covered from the rain and all that stuff."


He’s right. A mile down the road, workers were putting up a gigantic metal frame at the new site. It’s for a 100-by-70-foot tent that will shade, protect, and conceal much of the planned encampment.


Inside will be shelters provided by the city, with space for more tents outside.


Bobenhouse says many of his neighbors are on board, as strange as the plan sounds. They just want somewhere safe where they can get back on their feet.


Some said they believe their belongings will be safer from theft, with security and fences at the site.


But there’s another sentiment here as well. Some worry about rules the city will impose at the new encampment. 

Amber Streich said she fears losing some of the freedom she enjoys.


"I feel like I'm actually living life like humans are supposed to live their lives, as pioneers did," she said. 

Credit Will James / KNKX
A makeshift shelter in an encampment in Tacoma's tideflats

"Making my own homes, scavenging for food and water, and actually feeling fulfillment in my life." 


Rules aren't a deal breaker, though. She's considering the city's offer. She said there’s a tight-knit community on the tideflats, and many of her friends are planning to make the move.


Tacoma's sanctioned encampment is the second phase of a plan city leaders launched after declaring encampments of homeless people a "public health emergency" in May. 


The first phase of the plan brought a fresh water line and spigot, as well as portable toilets and sinks, to the encampment on the tideflats. City officials have said they plan to bring those amenities to a new encampment. 

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.