City’s homeless plan continues to evolve

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The city’s “stability site” at 1423 Puyallup Ave. provides shelter for homeless people and connects them with services for more stable housing options. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

Tacoma City Council’s emergency declaration in May regarding homelessness has passed its halfway point, but all indications are that it will be extended to at least the end of the year and has evolved from its original plans.

The council received an update on the efforts at a study session on Aug. 22 that outlined the conditions, the lessons and the evolving roster of recommendations for future action.

The council approved a six-month public health emergency in May to streamline efforts to slow the rising number and size of growing homeless encampments. The move allocated $3.4 million for a three-phased approach to curb the formation of large homelessness encampments that were causing public health and safety issues with piles of garbage, a lack of toilets and limited access to drinking water.

At that time, about 500 people were living in an estimated 50 encampments dotted around the city on any given night. The largest group site was known as the “Compound,” which was a cluster of more than three dozen tents that had been growing before the city stepped in to provide trash cleanup, running water and toilet facilities as an emergency step. The council declaration closed that site and transferred its residents to what is being called a stability site at 1423 Puyallup Ave. Catholic Community Services is providing onsite management at the site, which opened on June 26 and provides 84 tent sites, connections to social services and benefit referrals as well as access to drinking water, laundry services and meals within a security fence. The site has now formed a resident-led council to establish site rules and resolve grievances borne from communal living. The council has also established a site name, “We the People,” to drop the governmental jargon of “Stability Site.”

Residents of the site are also routinely picking up trash outside of the fence along Puyallup Avenue and meeting with area residents and businesses about any fears and concerns neighbors might have.

“We are developing week by week,” CCS site manager Joshua Waguespack said. “I am really proud of how far we’ve come in this. They are taking ownership of the site.”

The next step in the work – through the site council – is the formation of a mentorship program so former homeless people, who have found more stable housing, can shepherd site residents through the process of applying for jobs and benefits.

The city’s original plan was to add drinking water and other health amenities at another site, but has since recommended city funds be used to expand capacity at the “We the People” location and at other shelter programs instead. The recommended shift comes since the city is no longer seeing large encampments like the “Compound,” but smaller clusters of tents around the city.

While the plans evolve, success has been slow since only five people of the original 84 people who entered the Puyallup Avenue site have found stable housing in the three months of operation. That rate is hampered by the fact that most of the residents need some form of “supportive housing” because of disabilities or other factors. Those facilities are almost nonexistent in the city.

“This is not just an affordable housing issue,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland said, noting that solutions will require county, state and federal resources.

Since the council’s emergency declaration, the city has passed ordinances outlawing camping on public property and cut back on the number of days that people can sleep in their cars.

The “public camping” law forbids unauthorized encampments on public property but exempts daytime sunshades that are temporarily erected in public spaces for events and tents in designated camping areas.

The “human habitation of vehicle” ordinance reduced the time that someone is allowed to sleep in their cars while parked on public roadways, and specific areas, from the previous limit of seven to three days and requires that the vehicles be moved at least one mile away or face a fine of up to $250 fine.

The majority of homeless people in Tacoma are residents of the city and its surrounding Pierce County communities, according to city reports. According to the annual point-in-time count conducted earlier this year in Pierce County, almost 80 percent of homeless people reported they had lived in Pierce County before becoming homeless. The actual number of homeless people hasn’t significantly changed in recent years. Pierce County’s point-in-time homelessness count was held in January and tallied 1,321 people living in cars or impromptu campsites around the area. That count was actually 400 people fewer than last year’s tally. What prompted the emergency declaration was the size of the homeless camps, which cause public health and safety concerns regarding violence, drug activity, trash and waste removal that rose to the level of the council’s emergency declaration.

The city offers weekly updates on the homeless program at cityoftacoma.org/homelessupdates as well as scheduling a study session on the issue in the fall that will present recommendations through the rest of the year and beyond. The council would have to approve an extension of the emergency declaration before October to continue the efforts, but that is all but certain.

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