By Jackie Fender
In May 2017, Tacoma City Council declared a state of public health emergency relating to the conditions of homeless encampments within the city limits. The month of October marked an extension of the original ordinance through to Dec. 31 to take effect immediately. The original declaration was made in response to health and safety concerns due to the growing populations of homeless communities residing in more than 50 encampments in the city. Health and safety concerns surround encampments for both the homeless community and neighboring residents due to human waste, garbage and exposure to communicable disease and potential violence.
A part of this declaration included the Emergency Temporary Aid and Shelter Program, which approached these concerns with a three-phase action proposal. The first steps included a mitigation to reduce the impacts of homelessness on citizens, businesses and the homeless population, plus temporary transitional centers to provide connections to social and health services to better assist in facilitating the transition to permanent housing during the public health emergency. The program also addresses short-term transitional housing options to implement new approaches to short-term transitional housing that would establish housing options throughout Pierce County to ensure that people experiencing homelessness can find resources in the community they live in.
The declaration further states: “In addition to the $3.4 million funding approved on June 9, 2017 for the Temporary Emergency Aid and Shelter Plan, the City allocated $10.9 million in the 2017-2018 biennial budget for homelessness services, which is a 48 percent increase over its 2015-2016 investment.”
Stephanie Dunkel, a team member with the Tacoma/Pierce County Health Department and Pierce County Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), said that the Health Department’s position is one of support and advisory. Specifically, the department aids in providing expertise on the subject matter of environmental health concerns, data collection, health incident response and support while also facilitating access to water and waste management and medical services.
Phase two of the plan included two volunteer nurses visiting Tacoma’s tent city, near the Tacoma Dome, twice weekly to aid in self-care education, triage and guidance. This hands-on piece boasts a total of 850 hours invested into that response.
Though the public is assured that sustainable housing is a vital part of the ongoing conversation, many critics are concerned that the homeless epidemic is being criminalized. Beyond providing guidance and resources to water, waste management and much needed medical aid for those suffering from illness and substance issues, some of the actions being pursued can result in displacement of the homeless community by increasing fines for those residing in their vehicles and also limiting public camping options.
Furthermore, the declaration states, “The City will continue to invest in mental health services, substance use treatment, stable housing, sanitation services and safety. In addition to the service provision for people experiencing homelessness, the City will continue to implement encampment cleanup approaches and work with property owners to ensure that sites are clean and safe.”
While a state of public health emergency does result in awareness to needs of our homeless communities and an increase of resources being made available, it appears there is still much work to do with regard to sustainable solutions that benefit all. Hopefully with the extension of the declaration, the City of Tacoma continues to develop their approach and make these strides.