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On Homelessness, Tacoma Forges Ahead With Both Care And Crackdowns

Will James
A homeless camp in Tacoma, which city officials cleared in June 2017

Leaders in Tacoma say they’re attacking homelessness on two fronts.

Since the summer, they have spent millions of dollars on new services while also cracking down on people sleeping outside.

Five months into what officials describe as an emergency plan, they're now talking about doubling down on both strategies next year. 

In May, City Council members declared encampments of homeless people a "public health emergency" and directed the city manager to make a plan to address the crisis.

In June, Tacoma officials created a tent city, moved more than 80 people inside, and offered them a variety of social services. City officials also brought portable toilets, hand-washing stations and a fresh water line to an unauthorized encampment of dozens of people before clearing the site. 

Then, in July, City Council members passed laws against public camping and sleeping in vehicles for too long in one spot. Since then, the city has handed out 75 tickets for violating those laws and has cleared 327 encampments. 

Tacoma officials say their aim is to reduce the public-health impacts of homeless encampments, both on people experiencing homelessness and the community at large. 

City Councilmember Robert Thoms on Tuesday praised the city's enforcement efforts as a necessary part of a two-pronged approach. 

"We're recognizing there's a push and a pull involved in this episode," he said. "It can't just be, 'We're going to provide all this panacea of benefits to you. There's a bit of a push to get people that are somehow not stable and need to be pushed into a system that allows them to be assessed." 

The emergency declaration was scheduled to expire on Oct. 9, but City Council members voted Tuesday to extend it through the end of 2017. Programs related to the declaration are estimated to cost $3.4 million this year.

City Council members also discussed extending the efforts through 2018 at an estimated cost of $3.6 million. That would include the cost of hiring three police officers and a sergeant charged with enforcing laws related to homelessness. Council members said they would discuss the plan further in November. 

City leaders are in negotiations to purchase the former Calico Cat Motel on Pacific Avenue and turn it into a "readiness site" for homeless people who are ready to enter the workforce. 

City Manager Elizabeth Pauli said the site would have a "lease-like structure" that would allow residents to establish a rental history. They would also receive training in money- and time-management, she said.

Health officials shut down the Calico Cat last year after declaring it uninhabitable. Buying the site, rehabilitating it, and launching the "readiness" program could cost $2 million to $3 million, city officials said.

Tacoma leaders have struggled to move people from the city's sanctioned tent community into more permanent housing. 

The tent city was designed as a "stepping stone" to housing. But, so far, nine people have made that transition, while the tent community has a waitlist of more than 50 people.

Tacoma officials blame the bottleneck on a shortage of "permanent supportive housing," where care for people with physical and mental disabilities is offered, in Pierce County. Nearly 85 percent of the people living the city's tent community are disabled, city officials said. 

Two people have died in the tent community since it opened, both last month, according to Tacoma officials. 

City spokeswoman Gwen Schuler described both people as older men.  One was in "medical duress" and brought to a hospital, where he died, she said.

Another was found "unresponsive" in his tent and may have had a heart condition, Shuler said. 

Staff at the tent community are still trying to locate relatives for both men. 

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.