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Inside The Experiment That Is Tacoma's First Legal Tent City

Will James
Jayson Chambers is one of about 80 people who live at the City of Tacoma's first legal tent city, known as the "stability site"

Tacoma City Council members voted Tuesday to allow up to six legal tent cities or other temporary shelters to open throughout the city.

That could give Tacoma a total of seven legal encampments, even more than Seattle's six.

It's still unclear if all the newly permitted shelters will actually open in Tacoma. The city's plan relies on religious groups or nonprofits volunteering their properties and then getting neighborhood support.

But, if new tent cities do rise in Tacoma, they'll be loosely modeled on an experiment unfolding on a paved lot, hidden between train tracks and a highway overpass, a mile from the Tacoma Dome.

Tacoma's first and only legal tent city opened less than a year ago. 

City leaders call it the "stability site."

When it opened, the goal was to move some of the city's most vulnerable people out of illegal encampments, which city officials deemed a "public health emergency," and create a safe environment where they could rebuild their lives. 

Ten months in, individual stories from the site show progress is possible, if slow in many cases. They also reveal steep obstacles on the path from an encampment to a stable home. 

'Night or day'

Tacoma's tent city looks like none other in the region.

Its 60 tents are lined up inside a much larger tent, a white one that covers the community like an airplane hangar. Temperature controls help its residents get through hot days and freezing nights.

Jayson Chambers walks through the rows of identical shelters and stops at his. It stands out because the locked plastic bin where he keeps his belongings is covered in books.

"Instead of doing what I used to do, I have a lot of time on my hands now," said Chambers, a lanky 36-year-old with a ponytail sticking up from under a beanie.  "I find myself reading a lot and thinking a lot."

Not long ago, he was using heroin and living in a trash-strewn vacant lot covered in tents a mile down the road. He and other people living there called it the Compound.

Credit Will James / KNKX
A shelter in the Compound, an encampment on Tacoma's tideflats, before city officials tore it down in June 2017

Then, in June, Tacoma officials brought in heavy machinery and tore down the encampment, the start of a broader crackdown on illegal camping in the city.

City officials convinced most of the people living on the lot to move down the road to the new, city-sanctioned site. 

Chambers didn't go at first. He was suspicious.

Ultimately, it was a trailer full of showers that drew him in. 

"Someone needs to learn how to work the temperature thing because it’s either too hot or too cold," he said. "But, nevertheless, you’re clean. And when you’re homeless, any homeless person will tell you if you don’t have a clean body, that’s night or day.”

But getting him there was just the beginning.

'Unpacking all the trauma'

“It took him two months before he even talked to me," said Melissa Moss, who works for Catholic Community Services, the nonprofit that runs the stability site for the City of Tacoma.

Her job is overseeing services like mental health treatment provided there. Her own daughter struggles with addiction and her adopted son has schizophrenia and is often homeless in Tacoma. 

But to Chambers, who is trying to resolve an outstanding warrant related to drug charges, she was an authority figure. He suspected she might be a corrections officer.

"A lot of these people don’t have trust for any of us in the community," Moss said. "They think that we are out to kind of do them dirty and so it takes them a while to build those relationships and trust."

Now, Chambers gushes gratitude for the staff and volunteers who drive him to appointments. They helped him get on methadone. He's been off heroin for a month.

But five years on the streets left him with painful memories, and he's just starting to process them.

"Learning where to sleep, where not to sleep, which church pew you can sleep under, which ones you can’t, you know what I’m saying, which ones are safer," he said. "I mean, now you find yourself actually doing drugs to help you stay up because you can’t sleep nowhere."

Before people can move on to stable homes, the memories have to be dealt with, Moss said. 

"It’s unpacking all the trauma," she said. "And that takes so long."

Chambers said the stability site can by a difficult place to live. People live close together. Personalities clash. Things get stolen.

But it's the first place he's been able to stop worrying about surviving and start thinking about this life — even if that means grappling with the mistakes behind him and challenges, like the warrant, lying ahead.

"The light at the end of the tunnel is definitely seeable," he said. "Before, it was all dark."

'Marginalized from even the emergency shelter community'

Credit Will James / KNKX
Tacoma's first legal tent city, which city leaders call the "stability site" under construction in 2017

Data from Tacoma's tent city lay bare the time and resources that go into stabilizing people who have lived in encampments.

Catholic Community Services staff make individual plans to move people into housing as quickly as possible, and aim for 90 days. 

But nearly half of the 83 people living at the site came from the original encampment, the Compound, 10 months ago.

"Housing is sometimes the last thing that they’re needing, right?" Moss said. "It’s dealing with their mental health, getting their substance use taken care of, just feeling safe that they don’t have to like wake up and protect themselves or stay high to be safe at night."

Tacoma leaders estimated in August it costs about $2,250 per resident each month to keep the site running. The City Council allocated $3.4 million to operate the site in 2018, a city spokeswoman said.

A housing shortage is part of the reason it's difficult to move people out, officials said. There's a particular need for what's called "permanent supportive housing," homes with on-site services for people with physical or mental disabilities.

More than 80 percent of people living at the stability site report having some form of disability, city officials said in August. 

Then there's another stark reality: the population the site is designed for, people who have lived in illegal encampments, have some of the steepest obstacles to overcome, according to staff.

“Many of these people are folks that had sort of worn out their welcome with some of the service providers," said Denny Hunthausen, who leads Pierce County's branch of Catholic Community Services.

"They already were marginalized from even the emergency shelter community in many respects," he added. "And they had been willing to live in the most drastic of circumstances by being in those encampments."

More than 90 people have come and gone from the stability site since it opened in June. About a third, 32 people, made it into some form of housing. Another 32 people left without saying where they were going, but likely returned to homelessness.

The final third, 30 people, were kicked out. Hunthausen said that's despite a permissive attitude by staff who work to resolve conflicts and violations.

For instance, drug use isn't allowed at the site but, if someone is caught using, staff members work on a plan to bring the resident into compliance.

Still, some have struggled to adjust to life in the tent city.

"Due to violation of sort of community norms here, they were asked to leave and moved on," Hunthausen said. "And usually that’s a process, that’s not a one-time event unless it’s a serious assault or something of that nature."

About 80 people are waiting to get into the site. 

'A chance to change something'

William Bell was one of the first people to move into Tacoma's tent city.

William Bell reflects on the months he spent in Tacoma's first legal tent city

"Each day you’re on this side of the dirt, you have a chance to change something," Bell said in June, as he lugged a cart full of belongings out of the Compound.

Credit Will James / KNKX
William Bell on the day he moved into Tacoma's legal tent city

Behind him, payloaders were crushing and toppling the encampment where he and his wife had lived.  

At the time, he was marking 80 days without using drugs and had a cast on his arm. The injury came from a late-night scuffle in the encampment, where he fended off a neighbor who threatened him with a sawed-off shotgun. 

Bell, like a lot of his neighbors, was hopeful about the promise of safety and stability at the sanctioned encampment, even as he was annoyed the city was forcing him to move. 

Ten months later, with the tent city behind him, his feelings remain mixed. For one, the tent city was a challenging place to live. 

“You’ve got 80 to 90 people and you’ve got 80 to 90 personalities," said Bell, 55, reflecting on his time at the stability site from a Tacoma shelter called Nativity House.

"People stealing, people doing drugs, people getting on your nerves," he added. "You’ve got to be like prayed up for it."

Bell couldn't wait to get out. But he said his criminal record prevented him from getting an apartment.

He eventually convinced a towing company to sell him an RV for a dollar. He and his wife have lived in it since January. Nativity House is where he checks in regularly with a caseworker.

But, as much as Tacoma's tent city stressed him out, he took advantage of all it offered.

It's where he got a driver's license and graduated from a job training program. 

Bell loved his former job crisscrossing the country a truck driver, which he held before his drug use contributed to him losing his housing a few years ago. "They paid me to sightsee," he said.

He's managed to stay off drugs. And now he's set to start training to get a new commercial driver's license as soon as he gets his birth certificate in the mail from North Carolina. 

"You try to use the campsite to get the resources to move on, not just stay there," he said. "Some people that came in me with me, they’re still there. You know what I mean? Some people don’t want to do nothing."

Others, he said, found stability and lost it just as quickly.

One, he said, was a woman who lived with her Chihuahua and played a leadership role at the Compound. She, like him, was looking forward to the opportunities the tent city offered.

She graduated from the stability site and got into a home. And then, for some reason, she wasn't able to keep it.

Bell still sees her, walking up and down the streets between the tent city and the Tacoma Dome. 

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.