A Tent City In Tacoma? City Leaders Signal A Shift In Strategy

May 3, 2017

Tacoma leaders are signaling a shift in strategy in their fight against homelessness.

City Council members passed a resolution Tuesday calling for an "emergency temporary aid and shelter program." They said it may involve providing trash pickup and sanitation services to homeless people living in encampments -- or even creating a sanctioned tent city for the homeless. 

Such policies represent a departure for Tacoma, where leaders have sought to disband encampments of people living under bridges and along highways. State workers recently removed people from the city's largest encampment, a collection of tents and shelters under Interstate 705 known as "The Jungle."

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said that if the city isn't going to tolerate encampments, it must be able to tell homeless people where to go instead. 

"We have to have an answer to, 'Where do I go?'" she said. "And we don't have that answer right now."

Strickland said interim measures to improve sanitation and hygiene for homeless people could make the encampments cleaner and safer while city leaders work toward more permanent solutions. 

"Some people will be really unhappy with what we're doing," the mayor said. "Some will say we went too far and some will say we didn't go far enough ... But at the end of the day, we have a responsibility to make sure that we do not have a city where people are sleeping on the streets." 

Officials in many Northwest cities are struggling to manage growing homeless populations as housing costs skyrocket. A common question: To what extent should city leaders tolerate encampments of homeless people, who often migrate from place to place as workers repeatedly force them off public lands.

Tacoma officials on Tuesday seemed to acknowledge that that approach had fallen short. Seattle leaders came to a similar conclusion last year before reforming their policies toward homeless encampments. Officials in Seattle have faced criticism both from residents who want the city to take a harsher stance and those who say the so-called "sweeps" of camps are inhumane and unconstitutional. 

Interim Tacoma City Manager Elizabeth Pauli could unveil a package of new interim policies by Friday, Strickland said.

Tacoma City Council members also took a step toward declaring a homelessness "state of emergency," similar to the one that's been in effect in Seattle and King County since late 2015. 

Strickland said it's a legal tool that could give city leaders more leeway to enact anti-homelessness policies.

"It'll give us the ability to waive some things in deciding how we want to address this," she said. "For example, we may have the ability to waive procurement rules so that we can procure services right away." 

City Council members directed the city manager to draft an emergency declaration, which they may pass at a later date.

Editor's Note: Marilyn Strickland is a member of the KNKX board of directors. The board does not manage news coverage or day-to-day operations.