A developer forced them out of their building. Three years later, nearly half are dead.
This story is the first in a series. Check knkx.org for more installments later this week.
Hours before Kathy Dour had to leave her apartment at the Merkle Hotel, she still didn’t know what would happen to her once she stepped out the building’s door and onto Tacoma’s Pacific Avenue.
She was one of a handful of tenants left in the building on Oct. 31, 2018 — the deadline residents had to move out so a developer could renovate the building for new tenants who could pay more.
Dour was nervous because she needed to provide an address to the van service that drove her to dialysis treatments three times a week. She hoped workers from a nonprofit could pull off a miracle and find her a new home at the last minute.
"We're just standing in the wind right now, just waiting,” Dour, 63 at the time, told KNKX in 2018 as she stood in the Merkle’s dim lobby, under a ceiling fan piled high with dust.
To some, the century-old Merkle was a symbol of urban decay near the heart of Tacoma, an obstacle to the city’s yearslong effort to rebrand itself as an up-and-coming, desirable place to live. Bedbugs and mice roamed the building. Broken windows went unfixed for years, covered in plywood.
But, to the tenants who lived there, it was just about the last place in the city where a disability check still covered rent. One resident, Alfred Kirk, called the Merkle the “last stop before the mission” — meaning the Tacoma Rescue Mission homeless shelter — and “the first stop on the way up.”
Dour shared her kitchenless, one-room apartment at the Merkle with a friend, Laconia Woodley, who was also at a loss about what to do once the building closed.
“I was born and raised here in Tacoma. I’ve never had a problem having a place to stay,” Woodley, 69, told KNKX days before the move-out deadline. “It was always folks, friends, somewhere to go. But all my kinfolk are dead and gone. All my resources are dead and gone.”
Both lost their room at the Merkle and entered homelessness, surviving on the streets, according to Dour’s brother, Mark Dour. Then, he said, Kathy Dour started missing dialysis appointments.
Thirteen months later, both she and Woodley were dead.
They were just the first.
KNKX tracked down 12 former tenants of the Merkle displaced in 2018 and found that half — six in total — spent time homeless at some point after they were forced out of the building, staying in shelters, cars, storage units or the streets. That’s according to interviews with the tenants themselves, their relatives, or people who helped them.
In just three years, at least five former tenants have died.
KNKX first interviewed Merkle tenants as they scrambled to find housing in the days before the building closed. That’s where the story ended: with residents teetering on the brink of homelessness. For years, no one knew the full toll of displacing them.
Recreating the paths of people forced to leave the Merkle required tracking down former tenants, their relatives and nonprofit workers and advocates who helped them, and finding clues in hundreds of pages of government emails, court files and death certificates.
What emerged is a detailed picture of how people cross the threshold from living inside to living in shelters and on the streets.
Homelessness has risen to the highest-profile social and political issue in many West Coast cities and, experts say, what happened at the Merkle provides a window into one way that has happened.
A STEP ABOVE HOMELESSNESS
Residents of the Merkle were white and Black and Latino. They were musicians and Vietnam War veterans, immigrants and lifelong Tacoma residents. In past lives, some had worked in Tacoma’s oil refinery, paper mill and casinos.
Virtually every Merkle tenant was homeless before finding refuge in the building. They shared many of the same challenges as people living on the streets. Some used heroin or heard voices that weren’t there. Some had long arrest records. Most were disabled, living on roughly $750 a month in Social Security benefits.
But, at the Merkle, they had a place where they could have those problems and still live inside. The Merkle required no background checks and no security deposits — just a little under $400 a month in rent, few questions asked. Residents lived in hotel-style rooms, often crammed with their belongings. Without kitchens, they used hot plates and microwaves.
“It was a step above homelessness,” said a former tenant, John Stewart, 71.
It was a classic example of the residential hotels that, for decades, formed an unofficial safety net for thousands of people living at the edge of homelessness in the Puget Sound region. Their downfall began in the 1970s, experts say, as waves of regulation and redevelopment started to wipe them out. By 2018, the Merkle was the last of Tacoma’s residential hotels, and one of the last in Western Washington.
Tacoma developer Eli Moreno bought the building in March of 2018 for a little over $1 million, with plans to renovate the building. On May 31 of that year, he gave tenants 90 days to move out. Then, under pressure from activists and city officials, he extended the deadline two more months. He also gave tenants $500 each to relocate and waived the last month’s rent.
“We did everything in our power to help relocate residents as smoothly as possible,” Moreno said in a statement. He declined an interview.
But those efforts did little to help the tenants scrambling for apartments in Tacoma’s modern housing market. In 2018, real-estate trackers said the city, once considered an affordable alternative to Seattle, had the fastest rising rents in the Puget Sound region and some of the fastest in the U.S. The swath of Tacoma where the Merkle was made a list of the 20 most gentrified ZIP codes in the country. Average rents in the neighborhood reached nearly $1,600, more than double the entire income of many Merkle tenants.
Kirk, who had called the Merkle “the last stop before the mission,” ended up spending about two weeks at the Tacoma Rescue Mission after he was forced to leave the building. He said he had a spot in a heavily-trafficked part of the shelter where he had trouble sleeping and worried about people stealing his belongings.
Kirk, now 56, said he felt lost after leaving the Merkle, where he had lived for about 15 years. He bounced in and out of different living arrangements, including a hostel, a house divided into apartments, a mental-health treatment facility, and the shelter, until he got a room in an assisted-living center.
“I feel kind of isolated,” he said this year. “People are being run out of town. In addition to losing their residences, they also become disenfranchised and removed from the communities that they're in.”
Dean Tsapralis, now 76, spent decades playing percussion instruments on Tacoma’s music scene, and once made a living crafting and selling musically tuned wind chimes. When the deadline to leave the Merkle arrived, he was in bed recovering from surgery to remove cancerous tissue from his jaw. About 20 minutes before the deadline that night, two friends carried him down the Merkle’s narrow staircase then moved him into an apartment in their basement.
At one point, as Tsapralis put his belongings into a Tacoma storage unit, he ran into one of his former neighbors from the Merkle. Tsapralis said the man, who he knew as Tim, was wearing a backpack and carrying a sleeping bag. After they said their goodbyes, Tsapralis said, Tim walked off to start a life on the streets. KNKX verified with others that a man named Tim lived in the building and was not among those who found housing.
One tenant suffered from such severe mental illness she didn’t understand she had to leave the building, nonprofit workers said. KNKX is not publishing her name because she could not consent to an interview. She stayed at the Merkle three months past the deadline, until Pierce County sheriff’s deputies evicted her on Feb. 6, 2019, records show.
The woman, now 65, started sleeping under a railroad bridge a block away, said Nathan Blackmer, whose job in 2018 was to help Merkle tenants as a staffer for the social-service nonprofit Comprehensive Life Resources. KNKX could not confirm her whereabouts after that.
“I think about the Merkle, if not daily, weekly,” Blackmer said in a recent interview outside the building. “It felt like an afterthought to the city. It felt like an afterthought to the community. There was a tragedy to the failing of this place.”
FEEDING THE FIRE
City and nonprofit records suggest the number of Merkle tenants who fell into homelessness might have been even higher than the six KNKX identified. Comprehensive Life Resources tried to help 14 tenants who were scrambling to find housing. Of those, just five found homes before the deadline to move out. That left nine people who may have spent some time homeless, though it’s not clear exactly what their circumstances were.
Leonard Johnson, a Merkle tenant, predicted in 2018 that the building’s closure would add to Tacoma’s homeless population, which, at the time, was growing into a front-and-center public-policy issue.
“All you’re doing is creating homelessness more and more,” Johnson told KNKX as he was preparing to be displaced from the Merkle. “You’re just feeding a fire. And the fire’s going to consume you.”
Johnson, who lived at the Merkle for two years, said he had been homeless before and was committed to avoiding it again. He said he called more than 100 phone numbers as he scoured the region for an apartment, using up all the minutes on his cell phone.
“You have all these listings out here from different agencies, and out of 50 numbers, only five numbers are good numbers,” he was quoted as saying in a news release prepared by activists. “And then they have a waiting list.”
He told KNKX he considered taking a Greyhound bus 150 miles to Yakima, where he might have found an apartment he could afford, even though it would have meant leaving his relatives in Tacoma. But the plan didn’t work out.
By the time the deadline to move out arrived, he was out of options and seemed resigned to returning to homelessness. Johnson, then 58, said he was disabled and lived off less than $700 a month from Social Security.
“Playtime is over with, to be honest with you,” he said, standing in the Merkle’s lobby hours before the deadline. “It’s a rough world out there, and homelessness makes it even rougher.”
After the Merkle, Johnson cycled in and out of homelessness for months, sleeping on the streets, in a shared house and in a broken-down car, Blackmer said.
Nonprofit workers eventually found Johnson a room in an assisted-living facility, but he soon started acting aggressively and showing other signs of cognitive decline, Blackmer said.
Johnson was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After three surgeries, his family said, he died in a rehabilitation center last year.
“He was my favorite uncle,” said Johnson’s niece, Kelena Chisholm. She said he loved working on cars and practicing martial arts.
“He swore he was Bruce Lee,” said Chisholm, 43. “He pretty much taught himself, but he was great at it. I never saw him knock himself in the head with no nunchucks. My mom says she has, though.”
Blackmer kept in touch with Johnson from the time he lived at the Merkle until he died 16 months later. When Johnson was hospitalized at one point, he told Blackmer in a video message that he loved him and wanted to see him.
“It was the hardest loss I've experienced on the job,” Blackmer said.
A 2018 photo shows Johnson and four other tenants posing side-by-side with their advocates inside Tacoma City Hall, where they pressed their case to city officials. Only one of the five tenants pictured is still alive.
"I can’t believe, in this photo, that four of these people have died,” said Molly Nichols, an advocate who helped organize the tenants. “They’re not that old.”
The five former Merkle tenants who died ranged in age from 36 to 70. Three spent time homeless after leaving the Merkle, and all spent time homeless at some point in their lives. KNKX identified a cause of death for four tenants, and they died of cancer or chronic illnesses such as kidney failure or epilepsy.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t surprise me at all to hear the mortality statistics for them,” said Josephine Ensign, who teaches nursing and public health at the University of Washington and has cared for homeless and unstably housed people in Seattle since 1994.
Ensign said loss of housing may not be the immediate reason someone dies, but the stress and chaos of homelessness or housing instability can contribute. People in those situations are less likely to get checkups and screenings, and struggle to manage chronic illnesses, she said.
Studies show that people who die while homeless in the U.S. are, on average, about 30 years younger than people who die in the broader population.
“Not having a safe, stable place to stay is going to make our mental and physical health worse,” Ensign said.
EACH OTHER'S PEOPLE
Kathy Dour’s roommate, Laconia Woodley, said he wasn’t feeling well in the days before the move-out deadline. Just before the tenants were supposed to leave, he was hospitalized. Dour stayed beyond at the Merkle and appealed to the landlord for more time.
“Our disabilities affect our ability to pack and move our possessions,” said a letter to Moreno, written by an advocate on Dour’s behalf. “One of us is currently in the hospital. To have equal opportunity, we need more time to physically relocate.”
By early November, Dour had stayed past the deadline and was one of the only people left in the Merkle. The management company briefly locked her out of the building, but gave her a key once advocates complained the lockout amounted to an illegal eviction.
Dour’s reprieve didn’t last long. At some point that month, she walked out of the Merkle and started living on the streets, said her brother, Mark Dour.
Woodley, after he was released from the hospital, joined Kathy Dour in homelessness, Mark Dour said. He believes the couple took shelter in a storage unit they rented.
“It looked somewhat lived in,” Mark Dour said. “It was kind of a safe place to just get out of the limelight.”
Kathy Dour told her brother that, while homeless, she took a cab to some of her dialysis appointments, but missed others. Mark Dour said he believes those missed appointments contributed to what happened next.
Shortly after Kathy Dour started living on the streets, her brother said, she collapsed at a bank. She was hospitalized with advanced kidney failure, advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart problems, Mark Dour said.
Kathy Dour’s health declined until she was so frail that moving her from the hospital was a risk, Mark Dour said. Staff eventually managed to transfer her to an assisted-living facility in Seattle, where she was on dialysis five days a week and on a bland, low-sodium diet, her brother said.
“It was finally the point of Kathy deciding quality of life versus quantity of life,” Mark Dour said. “They had her on such a strict diet that she decided to stop dialysis.”
A few days later, Kathy Dour died. It was eight months after she was forced to leave the Merkle.
“She was pretty much an outgoing individual, and she’d talk to anybody about anything,” her brother said. “And, other than that, she was a lonely individual, too.”
Kathy Dour grew up in Frankfurt, Germany, while her father served in the U.S. Air Force, and then Lakewood. She struggled with heroin addiction from the time she was around 18, her brother said, and spent years cycling in and out of homelessness in Tacoma.
She and Woodley met on the streets, Mark Dour said. They were almost inseparable since.
“They would both tell you like they weren't romantic partners, they were just life partners,” said Blackmer, the former nonprofit worker. “They were each other's people.”
He said, in the weeks before the Merkle closed, Woodley declined some opportunities for housing because it would have meant leaving Kathy Dour behind.
Woodley was able to visit Kathy Dour only once while she was in the hospital. He was suffering from brain cancer. He began staying in a bed at a Tacoma homeless shelter, Nativity House, that was set aside for people who are not sick enough to be hospitalized but too sick to survive on the streets, according to Blackmer. That was the last Blackmer heard of him.
Woodley told KNKX in 2018 that he grew up all over Tacoma and once knew people in every neighborhood. He said he had worked as a “shoeshine boy,” a valet and, most recently, in maintenance at a casino, before retiring in 2017. He said he lived with his sister for a time but, after she died, he struggled to find housing. He said he had no family or friends left he could lean on.
One of Woodley’s sisters declined to speak to KNKX, saying the topic of her brother was too painful to talk about. No other living relatives could be found in searches of public records. All that remains is a one-page death certificate that records the end of Woodley’s life, on Dec. 1, 2019, and where it happened, a home for seniors in Lakewood. He was 70.
Nativity House, where Woodley spent some of his final year of life, is run by the nonprofit Catholic Community Services. Mike Curry, the executive director, said the organization has had a lot of staff turnover, and no one who’s left remembers much about Woodley. But, he said, some vaguely recall his name.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed reporting.