Homeless Encampments and Public Perception

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As homeless encampment clean-ups continue, Tacoma Weekly met with members of the city’s Homeless Outreach Team to get the view from their perspective.

By Matt Nagle

matt@tacomaweekly.com

When the Tacoma City Council declared a state of public health emergency in 2017, and passed an ordinance to prohibit public property camping, it served as a wake-up call to just how dire homelessness is in Tacoma. Part of the city’s Emergency Temporary Aid and Shelter Plan, these actions on behalf of city leaders are an effort to address safety and health issues at homeless encampments and the threat the camps pose to camp residents and broader communities alike due to things like human waste, garbage, exposure to communicable disease, violence, sex trafficking and other concerns.

“By declaring a state of emergency, the city clearly recognizes the level that we’re at with the issues we’re facing. Council is conscious of how big a problem this is,” said Allyson Griffith, manager of the Neighborhood Enhancement Team, part of the city’s Neighborhood and Community Services Department.

She said Council will re-examine the state of emergency at a study session on Nov. 19, which will provide an opportunity for the public to tune in and hear what’s being planned going forward.

According to the city’s Homeless Services Manager Erica Azcueta, $8 million in city funds are allocated in the City’s 2019-2020 budget for homeless services, which includes all emergency shelters and transitional rehousing services and what is called a “complementary component.” As Azcueta explains, “We have legal services, food banks, education, mental health, and they’re all encompassed in that component. That’s the city’s comprehensive approach to investing and understanding that people who are experiencing homeless have very diverse needs.”

Addressing Tacoma’s homeless crisis includes cleaning up homeless encampments across the city, especially those that exhibit a public health hazard. On Oct. 18, such a clean-up occurred in Hilltop at 11thand J Streets that caught the attention of local homeless advocates who expressed dismay that it occurred on a particularly cold and rainy day. As this encampment was on private property, authorities arrived to enforce a no-trespass order after a 72-hour notice was posted at the camp. During the clean-up, the City of Tacoma’s Homeless Outreach Team was there to offer resources and referrals to any camp resident who wanted them. 

Tacoma Police Department Public Information Officer Loretta Cool noted that giving 72 hours notice has never been a requirement, but rather the policy was developed years ago in order to help those living in encampments cope with being relocated. 

“What we found is that if you go and make contact or leave a notice in or on their tent, it gives them time to gather all their things that are important,” she said. “The object is that hopefully they’re there when we come into the encampment for the clean-up so we can hook them up with whatever resources are available. This all started developing more than 12 years ago. What you’re seeing now is a process we go through that people have grown. We’re trying to help people. We don’t want them living in those conditions.”

According to Cool, out of the 15 camp residents at the 11thand J Street site, two accepted housing assistance and one was transported to a nearby hospital for medical treatment. Cool has been present for many homeless camp clean-ups and has helped a lot of people along the way.

“We can’t force people to take resources; we can just hope to re-contact them and that they’ll be more accepting of resources,” she said. “Each time we move an encampment, we do our best to make sure the next one has a smaller number so that eventually we won’t have those encampments sprouting up in different places. Right now we don’t have enough beds for everyone but we’re doing our best to change that.”

This is part of what the city’s Homeless Outreach Team does – stay in touch with homeless individuals as best they can so that when these individuals are ready to accept help, they can get it. Just because help may be turned down the first time doesn’t mean it will be at a future date. 

Azcueta’s staff is present when homeless camps are cleaned up. “The first conversation with every person who’s willing to engage is, ‘What can we do to help you?’ Not everyone wants help, but for those who do, we have two beds reserved at the Tacoma Rescue Mission so for those who want immediate shelter, we have access to those two beds up until 8 p.m. If there’s an available spot at the stability site, we can refer directly there as well.” 

The city also invests in creating more room at existing shelters. “The City of Tacoma has been getting in touch with non-profits and faith-based organizations to see what additional capacity we have,” Aczueta said. “We have a temporary shelter permit submitted with Bethlehem Baptist Church for an additional 40 units so we’ll have those coming up soon. We invested $1.6 million in Tacoma Rescue Mission to expand their shelter capacity with 50 units, scheduled for March 2020.”

Critical to the city’s homelessness response is partnering with non-profit groups and organizations like the Tacoma Rescue Mission and Nativity House that offer resources to those with no place to live. 

“Our long term goal in working with service providers is that we stabilize the homeless person long enough for them to get out of homelessness completely. I’ve heard so many arguments from citizens about how there is a huge population of people that want to live that way. I don’t agree. I would say probably less than five percent of that population chooses that,” Cool said. 

If encampment residents are not present during clean-ups, the city stores their belongings. The city’s policy is to hold items for 60 days at the city stability site, 1423 Puyallup Ave., which provides shelter for the homeless and connection to services for more stable housing options.

“We tend to keep things a little bit longer,” Azcueta said in explaining the flexibility of the storage policy. “If someone says they need an additional day or two to get their things, we will provide that extra time.”

Cool said that never has a clean-up crew gone into a homeless camp and just started throwing things away. 

“We’ve never done that. Maybe when you’re driving by and we’re throwing trash into the dumpster, that’s what you’re seeing – trash being thrown away – the human excrement and filth, things that are not salvageable. It doesn’t mean we’ve taken that person’s property and say go take a hike. We let them know we’re coming and we offer them whatever we have available after asking you how we can help. The city provides dollar after dollar trying to solve this issue, to make things better for everybody.”  

Keeping public areas safe for everyone’s use is another facet of the city’s homeless outreach. Griffith’s team handles this aspect. 

When the city is notified of a site that’s a chronic encampment location where it’s publicly owned property, the Neighborhood Enhancement Team will look at what it can do to either reclaim that site if it’s supposed to be open to the public in general, or “harden” the site using fencing or the like if the area is not supposed to be accessible by the public at all, like under an overpass, for example.

“We look at what we can do to make that space available for the whole public, and safer,” Griffith said. “What I think is often forgotten in the conversation when people see an encampment clean-up is the safety risks for individuals living there – predatory behavior like dealing drugs, soliciting for prostitution – so that environment isn’t safe.”

When work was done at Fireman’s Park this past February to increase safety there, some residents expressed their dismay at the work being done, which included the removal of trees, bushes and rocks to provide better visibility of the entire park overlooking the Thea Foss Waterway, adding fall-prevention barriers and making the park more accessible by replacing gravel patches with grass. 

“The leveling of Fireman’s Park is an example of what we’ve undertaken to open up the sightlines there and make it safer for everyone,” Griffith said. “So when people look at Fireman’s Park and say you’re just trying to get rid of the people experiencing homelessness, we’re trying to make it a safe space for everyone to use. It’s not okay to be solicited for prostitution in a public space and if people can’t see that activity going on, it’s not safe whether you’re housed or un-housed.”

The city invests in protecting the most vulnerable – youth and young adults – with existing day and nighttime shelters. 

  • Arlington Drive Youth Campus, a crisis residential center that currently has six beds and will soon be expanding to 12 beds 
  • The HYPE Center on Tacoma Avenue where youth and young adults have access to counseling, mental health services, employment, education, hygiene, showers, and more
  • An overnight shelter at Beacon Center for young adults age 18-24 with the same resources offered to them along with a housing component so they can secure permanent housing.

On a grander scale, the city is working on an affordable housing action strategy. “There are a lot of pieces coming in to that,” said the city’s Communication Specialist Megan Snow. “How do we start to build in more density to find affordable housing…a long-term strategy to build for the population that’s coming?”

Snow said that Mayor Victoria Woodards routinely engages in regional discussions, talking with other local jurisdictions and counties about homelessness solutions, and also in her role as part of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “It’s also part of our legislative agenda and we are working to engage our partners more deeply at the state and federal levels looking at how we can get more funding and help at the state and federal level,” Snow indicated.

Speaking with these representatives of the city’s homelessness response, it is plain that there is a lot of compassion and empathy among them – smart minds that come together to brainstorm and develop ways to alleviate issues surrounding homeless in ways that respect all parties involved. 

“We have boots on the ground. The homeless outreach team is out there,” Azcueta said. “No one is trying to criminalize homelessness. We want to get people to a place that’s safe where they can get stable and be successful, proactive and productive community members.”

Learn more about the city’s response to homelessness at www.cityoftacoma.org/homelessness.

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