Police remove unsheltered people from occupation of vacant Tacoma school building
UPDATE, Nov. 24: A protest organized by Tacoma housing advocates Monday night ended with a march to the home of the city’s mayor. The demonstration started at the Tacoma Mall, where activists called for creation of a so-called community land trust, to guarantee more affordable housing in the city.
Protesters then marched several miles to Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards’ house. They criticized the mayor’s lack of response to Friday’s occupation of Gault Middle School.
“We demand a community land trust of as much city-owned vacant land as is needed to end homelessness in our city for good,” Tacoma Housing Now, the group that organized the protest, tweeted after the march. “We will fight until everyone is housed, fed, and cared for!”
Tacoma police removed about 10 unsheltered people who had occupied the vacant Gault Middle School building for much of Friday, advocates supporting the occupation said.
About 20 police officers amassed outside the school building Friday evening, and some went inside wearing head-to-toe protective gear to clear people out, said Rebecca Parson, a spokeswoman for the coalition Tacoma Housing Now.
"The residents are really upset, and rightly so," Parson said. "They’re back to the Hooverville. That’s on the city. But the fight’s not over. We’re just getting started. But the City of Tacoma is really showing its true face."
The unsheltered people had moved into the long-vacant school building earlier in the day from an encampment under a bridge on Tacoma's tideflats.
The occupation was partly an effort to escape the cold, but also a protest designed to spur the city to fight homelessness more aggressively, advocates said.
Their main demand was for the city to give the building over to a community-run land trust that would turn it into permanent housing, and to do the same with as many other vacant, city-owned buildings as possible.
"A lot of people have faith in this," said Nathaniel Stewart, one of the people who had moved into the building earlier Friday. "We have a chance to live and be more comfortable and be more settled than where we were. We just want to be comfortable. And it gives us hope."
Stewart, 43, said he has been homeless for about seven years and works temporary jobs as a laborer. He said he felt safer in the school building and more hopeful he'd be able to get out of homelessness.
"We're not here to terrorize or be negative or anything," he said. "We're trying to be as positive and do the best we can. We're not going to terrorize the neighborhood or anything. We're trying to clean up the building and actually clean up the neighborhood as best we can. We just want a chance, you know?"
Advocates said people were spurred to occupy the building after two people died recently of exposure in Tacoma, including one man who died outside in a wheelchair.
Gault Middle School has sat vacant since it closed in 2009. Over the years, potential buyers looked at the building but the deals fell through.
"Most recently this fall the Tacoma Housing Authority backed out of a potential deal for the property due to economic effects from the pandemic making access to capital impossible for them to continue their planned project," said Dan Voelpel, a spokesman for Tacoma schools.
For several hours Friday, the people from the encampment cleaned broken glass from former classrooms, set up mattresses and cots, and moved in their belongings, Stewart said.
Meanwhile, advocates and attorneys for the people occupying the building negotiated with police officials outside.
At one point, officials offered to provide beds in a shelter for the people inside the school building, but the people inside the building declined, saying the offer didn't meet their demands, Parson said.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards was not available today for comment, according to a Tacoma City Council staffer.
Rebekah Way and Ashley Gross contributed to this report.
This is a developing story.