The rising homelessness problem in Tacoma that prompted its City Council to declare a public health emergency is not reserved for the City of Destiny. University Place has seen a rise in homelessness in recent years as well.
“It is kind of an isolated problem a few times a year,” Police Chief Mike Blair said.
While U.P. doesn’t have tent cities or rows of cars of sleeping people inside them that are common in downtown Tacoma, people call U.P. officers when homeless people are found in places like wooded areas around Adriana Hess Wetland Park, Chambers Crest Wildlife Habitat and Leach Creek Conservation Park. Officers try to connect the homeless people with social services but otherwise take a hands-off approach.
“It’s a human issue and not a public safety issue,” Blair said. “They don’t bring crime here. They come here because it is safe.”
Since U.P. doesn’t have a shelter or a social service hub, many of the homeless people in the city simply venture to the security of the suburban community during the day and return to Tacoma at night, he said.
That limited population of homeless people in U.P. might disappear since Tacoma’s stepped up efforts will add social services and more structure so they are safer, lowering the need for people without homes to commute outside of its city limits.
The Tacoma City Council has approved the least expensive out of three options outlined by city staff but a marked increase in spending for homelessness programs.
“It is a different approach but I believe we have to try something we haven’t tried before,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland said.
The action came after the City Council passed an emergency homelessness ordinance last month that declared the recent spike in homeless people a matter of public health. About 500 people are homeless in Tacoma at any one time, either in one of the estimated 50 encampments in vacant lots or sleeping in their cars parked on city streets or simply sheltering in alleys. The specifics of the three-step approach include the mitigation of the current problem, the siting of temporary tent cities on city property and short-term housing.
The emergency homelessness response plan is expected to cost about $3.4 million, which comes even after the council passed a budget item of $10.9 million on homelessness programs during the next two years, a nearly 50 percent increase from the previous two-year budget. The highest price option that the staff developed had a price tag of $8.9 million that would have had four city-run tent encampments and two other facilities as well as a transitional housing facility. A mid-level plan that had been under review would have cost about $6.3 million.
The $3.4 million plan council selected calls for two non-consecutive mitigation sites and one stability site that will be sited on city owned property through interim zoning and land use controls under the emergency measure to allow camps on city property. The effort will be paid for through a combination of $1.2 million from the city’s cash reserve and $2.2 million from a recent sale of a Tacoma Rail Mountain Division Property.
“We do the best we can with the resources we have,” Strickland said.
The city opted for the least expensive plan as a way to do more but monitor progress while the city develops stronger partnerships with nonprofits and explores all options that include prefab houses, rental programs and programs underway in other cities to report on future recommendations in August.
“We are using the dollars we have as wisely as possible,” City Manager Elizabeth Pauli said during a study session on the issue before the council vote.
The city currently provides toilets, drinking water, garbage removal, security and service referrals at a temporary encampment known as “The Compound” at East 18th Street and Portland Avenue that has about 40 tents and 15 vehicles. It is set to close at the end of the month and then dovetail into plans under development. City staffers reviewed all city owned property for use as temporary homelessness housing sites, opting to recommend a site at the corner of Puyallup Avenue and Portland Avenue because of its proximity to city services as well as to the current encampment.
The first mitigation site under the emergency declaration is slated for city-owned property at 1423 Puyallup Ave. It would have a capacity of about 140 people, but likely house between 80 and 100 under the plan. The city is eyeing the purchase of aluminum-framed canvas tents that would be used to house people at the site that will also offer social services, security screenings, laundry, water and toilet facilities. These eight-by-eight-by-eight tents could house up to four people and cost $6,500 each. A larger tent could serve as an umbrella over the collection of tents to provide further shelter and then be reused by the city’s Environmental Services Department for emergency response operations. The smaller tents could also be stored for emergencies after the homelessness crisis ends.
“We are running down all of those kinds of options,” Pauli said. “We are really trying to leave no stone unturned in this phase.”
Another option in the mix is for the city to lease the former Calico Cat Motel, which closed in 2016 after being the site of crime, drug dealing and prostitution for decades. It is currently being redeveloped as the Pacific Lodge. The idea would be for the city to rent the renovated facility and contract with a social services nonprofit to run transitional housing programs from the 40-unit location.
The city is stepping up efforts as the anchor city of Pierce County and after the County Council failed to pass a mental health tax following more than a year of discussions and hearings that would have funding treatments and addictions commonly found in chronically homeless people.
“We can’t fund our way out of this,” Councilmember Robert Thoms said. “It’s not a city of Tacoma problem. It’s a societal problem.”