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In Tacoma, Artists Set To Work On Homelessness

Will James
Susan Robb, a Seattle-based artist and one of Tacoma's new artists-in-residence, at Fireman's Park

Leaders in Tacoma have hired two artists-in-residence to help the city grapple with human elements of a homelessness crisis.

One of them is Seattle-based artist Susan Robb, whose task is to help the city "reclaim" parks and other sites where people have been known to camp. 

For Robb, whose art focuses on people's connections to places, that means re-imagining sites so a broader swathe of the population might want to spend time in them.

One of her first projects is Fireman's Park, a sliver of grass and benches overlooking Commencement Bay -- near a spot where people have been known to live in tents. 

Robb said she sees potential in the park's views of Mount Rainier, beyond the steel trusses of Tacoma's Murray Morgan Bridge. 

"When I first came out here, it was dusk one evening, and the mountain was framed by that," she said. "I was just like, 'Wow, this is such an iconic -- such a beautiful image." 

With a little sprucing up, perhaps with some new lighting, she imagines this place as a venue for concerts and dance classes one day.

"For sure, there might be some beautification aspect to it, but it also could be like, 'You know, what could we do with this in the summer?'" Robb said. "Maybe there's a music series. Maybe there's some kind of art experience that happens in the evening." 

She said it's linked to a concept called "psychogeography," or the psychology of a place.

But Robb said it's important that process does not leave out the park's homeless visitors. 

"I'm not trying to drive them from these places," she said. "I'm trying to bring them to these places with new use and new purpose and a sense of being part of the community, not isolated."

She said that means "finding ways that these spaces can benefit them that's not just as an encampment; You know, as something else that's positive for the entire community." 

It's a balancing act. But Robb has help. 

Tacoma hired a second artist, Roni Chelben of Austin, Texas, to work directly with people living outdoors, possibly staging performances at places like Fireman's Park. 

The women are the city's first two artists-in-residence, and their tenure lasts until the end of the year. Robb began her work in December while Chelben started this month. 

Tacoma's budget for the program is $100,000, which includes stipends for the artists and budgets for their projects. 

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.