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Tacoma considers whether its homeless 'stability site' is worth keeping

Will James
Tacoma's stability site under construction in 2017.

Tacoma has invested millions of dollars in a sanctioned encampment where caseworkers act to move people from homelessness to housing. 

With funding for the "stability site" set to run out at the end of the year, city officials are now weighing the program's cost and effectiveness as they consider how, and whether, to keep it open. 

It's the latest challenge facing a small or mid-sized city grappling with a rise in unsheltered homelessness outside Seattle.

About a third of the people who have lived at the camp — 78 residents — have found housing. That success rate is higher than that of the Tacoma's emergency shelters, which have fewer services, and comparable to that of Seattle's "tiny house villages," which have caseworkers on site. 

But the price tag has given some officials pause. Tacoma expects to spend $2.3 million operating the stability site in 2019. 

City Council member Chris Beale, at a meeting Tuesday, said some officials experienced "sticker shock" over the cost. But he said the expense may be worth it in the end. 

"What's the societal cost if we don't do this?" Beale said. "People using ER rooms for general medical care. The cost to our society that's difficult to monetize. Police services responding to encampments, which will unfortunately proliferate when we close this." 

City Manager Elizabeth Pauli said her staff has laid plans to wind down operations at the site, given the absence of funding beyond 2019. The plans include turning away prospective residents beginning in June and working to house any remaining residents by the end of December.

One option would be to enlarge shelters to absorb people who otherwise would have gone to the stability site.

Tacoma officials plan to help pay for an expansion of the Tacoma Rescue Mission shelter that would add 40 to 50 beds by the end of 2019. The $2.2 million cost would be paid for with a mix of city funds, grants and private donations. 

Even so, an estimated 24 residents would remain at the stability site when it closes, based on the rate at which people have found housing, Pauli said. Those residents, city officials said, have steep obstacles to finding housing and may have been barred from local shelters. 

One possibility, Pauli said, would be for the City Council to provide funding to allow those residents to stay beyond 2019. 

City Council member Ryan Mello is among those concerned the site is closing too soon and seeking to re-evaluate. 

"I think we need to set goals, absolutely," he said. "But I hear time and time again from our community partners, from the Tacoma Police Department, that they need a place to take people to, and the stability site has been a really important asset."

The site was always meant to be temporary. City officials opened it in June 2017 after declaring homelessness a "public health emergency." It was a central part of the city's strategy of ramping up enforcement on illegal camping while also expanding services. 

The stability site's design is unlike any other encampment in the region. Dozens of tents are contained within a larger, temperature-controlled tent. Additional "pallet shelters" are outside. 

City officials first populated the site by displacing people from an illegal camp about a mile away and directing people there. Five of those original residents remain at the site nearly two years later, among the 89 people living there now.

In all, 270 people have lived there. While 78 people have moved on to find housing, two-thirds of residents either returned to the streets or left without saying where they were going.

Among the obstacles to housing people, city officials said, was a regionwide shortage of "supportive housing" with services for people with physical and mental disabilities. 

Pauli said the stability site's absence would likely result in more unsanctioned camps, and said city staff did not recommend its closure.

"Some of the issues that the community experienced before the stability site will return," she said. "We want to make that very clear."

Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.
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