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Tacoma defines how its homelessness 'emergency' will end

West Coast cities, including Seattle and Portland, have had states of emergency in place around homelessness for several years. But many of those declarations are open-ended, lacking definitions of what it would take to end the crisis.

Tacoma City Council members settled on such a definition last week.

They said, for the city's "state of public health emergency" to end, they would have to create enough shelter for 95 percent of the people who need it. 

Pierce County's annual census of the homeless population counted 629 people living in tents, alleys and other outdoor spaces this year. Tacoma was the most common place in the county they were found, though a precise number of the city's unsheltered population wasn't included in data posted on the county's website.

Efforts underway right now will help the city end the state of emergency, said Linda Stewart, who leads Tacoma's Department of Neighborhood and Community Services.

Those include plans to build "micro units," also known as tiny houses, in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood and a law making it easier for religious organizations to host temporary shelters. 

"What we anticipate is that there will be multiple additional temporary shelters stood up and additional permanent supportive housing that will be in place over the next several years to help mitigate the situation," Stewart told council members at a Nov. 19 meeting. 

Tacoma's 2017 emergency declaration led council members to create a "stability site" that shelters roughly 85 people at a time in tents and one-room structures and provides caseworkers to help them find housing.

So far, 353 people have lived at the site, and 114 have moved on to some form of housing, City Manager Elizabeth Pauli said. The site is estimated to cost $2.3 million to operate in 2019. 

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.