A grassroots effort wants to convert a former Rite Aid store in the center of Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood into a youth shelter and hub for services to help homeless teens by as early as next year. But there are many obstacles that could hamper those efforts.
Rite Aid had operated at the location until 2005 and was then followed by a Save-A-Lot discount grocer for another seven years. The 16,000-square-foot building has been vacant since 2012, providing many people with a sign of longstanding economic hardships in the neighborhood.
“Not only is it vacant,” effort organizer Angela Connelly said, “it’s abandoned. It is a wound in the heart of the city.”
She and other members of Collaborate Tacoma are now championing an effort to convert the former retail center into a one-stop shop for teens battling with homelessness by providing spaces for service providers that would offer everything from job training and counseling to places to display art, hold performances and borrow books. Mini houses within the building could also serve as shelters for up to a dozen 16- to 20-year-old homeless young adults. Details about the center are still being worked out, but the effort is moving forward.
“We are in the thick of it right now,” Connelly said, noting that the group has a letter of intent to sublease the building and has dreams of outright buying the building once the master lease ends in three years. “It will be Tacoma making it happen. This Tacoma community has been crazy generous. It’s a raising the barn sort of situation.”
The anchor activity of the group’s grand plan would be a Tacoma branch of Coffee Oasis, a 20-year-old, Christian-focused effort in Kitsap County that operates coffee roasters and java shops to provide job training and services for homeless youth. The idea was selected after visiting youth shelter programs around Puget Sound, from Seattle to Olympia and a community collaboration driven to do something.
“Nothing night after night after night is getting done,” Connelly said. “Now is when it needs to happen.”
City Councilmember Keith Blocker, however, is one of the voices that appreciates the group’s enthusiasm but want the ideas fully discussed and reviewed before a youth shelter is formally proposed in his Hilltop district. He issued a statement about his concerns after Connelly pitched the idea in her guest column in The News Tribune a week ago.
“I value the work we are currently doing in Tacoma to find strategic and sustainable ways of responding to the challenges faced by individuals experiencing homelessness,” Blocker wrote. “To address this complex issue, we truly have to come together as a community, and I commend all those who have joined in these efforts. I believe in ensuring that services can be accessed in a fair and equitable manner across our community, and I have concerns about utilizing the property at 1105 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Tacoma as a youth overnight shelter location. This is a proposal that has not been discussed with me or my City Council colleagues and it is one that warrants a more thorough analysis, and the involvement of the appropriate city staff.”
City staff had been working on plans to open a teen drop-in center and shelter on South Tacoma Way, but structural troubles and opposition by local businesses eventually halted those plans, he said. That effort had taken years of review and public comment already, so any future shelter or service center should likewise be vetted and reviewed, particularly since opening a center at that location would require a conditional use permit.
“For me, it’s the process. We have to follow the process,” he said. “This is a big project. We need the services, but we don’t need them all in the same neighborhood. We definitely need a shelter and drop-in center, but I don’t think that is the right location.”