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Tacoma Finds It's Easy To Move People Into A Sanctioned Camp, Hard To Find Them Housing

Will James
Workers set up a sanctioned encamptment for homeless people in Tacoma in June 2017

The City of Tacoma is three months into an emergency plan to address homelessness, estimated to cost $3.4 million by the end of the year.

On Tuesday, city leaders released some data showing how those efforts are working out. The numbers tell a story of successes and roadblocks.

One takeaway: Tacoma staff are surprisingly good at moving people from illegal encampments into a sanctioned tent community.

When city officials shut down an illegal encampment of homeless people in Tacoma's tideflats in June, they convinced an overwhelming majority to move to a nearby site managed by the city.

At a City Council meeting Tuesday, Tacoma leaders said their success at overcoming distrust far exceeded their own expectations. 

Ninety people have moved to the city-managed site of 82 tents, many of which are inside a giant, temperature-controlled tent. A variety of social service providers work with residents of the site.

But Tacoma officials say it's proven much harder to move people from that tent community into more permanent homes. So far, only five people have made the transition. 

"We have not found the ticket to having the housing available," City Manager Elizabeth Pauli said at the meeting. "We have folks that are in basically referral status, in other words ready to roll, if that housing option were there." 

Mayor Marilyn Strickland said the "bottleneck" is due to a serious shortage of affordable housing that comes with social services, an arrangement known as permanent supportive housing. 

More than 80 percent of the people city officials are trying to help report having a physical or mental disability.

“A large majority of this population needs supportive housing, which means social services on site," Strickland said. "It might mean 24/7 care."

"This is not just an affordable housing issue," she added. "This is permanent supportive housing that has social services on-site, and we have a huge deficit countywide.”

Tacoma’s sanctioned tent community is at capacity with a waiting list of 47 people.

City leaders estimate it costs $2,250 per resident to run the sanctioned tent community each month. They said they may direct more money to shelters to help meet the demand.

Tacoma officials have also stepped up enforcement of homelessness-related violations. They have cleared 131 encampments of homeless people and cited 18 people for illegal camping in recent months.

Officers have also handed out 39 citations to people living in vehicles who break city laws governing where and how long they can park.

Tacoma leaders provided portable toilets, hand washing stations, and fresh water to improve sanitation at the tideflats encampment before shutting it down. More than 100 people lived at the site at its height.

City officials said Tuesday that they will hold off on bringing those services to a new encampment. City Manager Pauli said most remaining encampments in the city consist of only a handful of people.

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.