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Matt Driscoll: Deaths, unrest, growing encampments make it clear: Tacoma is failing the homeless

News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. logoNews Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. 1 day ago Matt Driscoll, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

Three deaths, so far.

An empty, asbestos and mold-filled school building seized by a local housing advocacy group.

A growing downtown encampment, set ablaze.

To understand the desperate state of Tacoma’s homelessness crisis, just look around.

Then ask yourself how we got here.

While local leaders in places like Seattle, King County and Thurston County have found creative ways to get people inside during a pandemic — including proposing sources of revenue for housing and plans to temporarily provide hundreds of people with otherwise empty hotel rooms — ours have too often seemed content to play small ball.

Instead of thinking big, or outside the box, here in Tacoma we have continued to pin most of our hopes on well-meaning churches and stretched-thin service providers, keeping our fingers crossed that — with just a little help — they’ll be able to shoulder even more of the burden.

Unfortunately, the results of this piecemeal plan are officially in, and they tell us all we need to know.

It’s time for the local government to step up and find a way — a different way — to do more, because lives are at stake.

Tragically, we’ve learned that the hard way this November.

On Nov. 5, a man known to be homeless was reported dead on the porch of a home on Tacoma’s Eastside, according to Tacoma Police spokesperson Wendy Haddow.

Five days later, in the parking lot of the Nativity House shelter downtown, a man was found deceased in the van he had recently been living in, Haddow said.

Then, on Nov. 15, yet another man who appeared to have been living in his car was found dead, this time on Sixth Avenue, between North M and North L Street, Haddow said.

While the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s office has yet to release cause of death information in any of the cases, each appeared to involve individuals living in conditions unfit for human habitation, according to Haddow.

None of the deaths were believed to be suspicious, she added.

On Friday, the losses of life were cited as inspiration by Tacoma Housing Now for the surprise takeover of Gault Middle School School, where at least 10 people had taken up residence by midday, protesting the lack of emergency housing.

Whether you agree with the activists’ approach or not, one thing is certain:

The three deaths should raise serious concerns about the city’s ability to provide shelter to those in need, particularly as we prepare for the cold, wet and unforgiving Northwest winter ahead.

The truth is, Tacoma was shortchanging its homeless residents long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Since the brief honeymoon phase of the Dome District stability site ended, the city has focused most of its efforts to expand shelter capacity on forging new partnerships with local service providers and churches.

During that time, millions have been spent, and there have certainly been victories — like the tiny home villages, a new warming center at the Eastside Community Center and shelters at Bethlehem Baptist and First Christian Church.

But now, as we head into a pandemic winter and our failings are magnified, Tacoma is confronted with an undeniable reality check.

Has it been enough?

It sure doesn’t seem like it.

The growing community outcry is warranted.

As just one example of the escalating crisis, last week The News Tribune’s Allison Needles reported on a growing unsanctioned homeless encampment at Eighth Street and Yakima Avenue in Tacoma. The encampment had recently grown from a handful of tents to more than 20. (On Friday, a fire broke out at the site.)

At the time of Needles’ reporting, city leaders acknowledged that unfortunate situations like this weren’t necessarily surprising.

Erica Azcueta is program manager for the city’s Neighborhood and Community Services Department. He told The News Tribune homeless shelter capacity has been reduced by necessary pandemic precautions, even with winter bearing down on us.

“Typically when the weather gets colder (service providers) are able to expand shelter — we usually get nearly 200 extra shelter beds when it gets colder,” Azcueta said. “But they can’t do that right now because of the pandemic. So that’s why (homelessness and encampments are) becoming a little more visible right now.”

At local shelters, officials confirmed Azcueta’s assessment.

According to Catholic Community Services SW Agency director Denny Hunthausen, the Nativity House shelter typically has a nightly capacity of about 167 beds, and that number jumps to roughly 250 when the weather gets bad.

This year, the need for physical distancing has capped the number of Nativity House beds at roughly 90, regardless of temperature.

Every night it’s full.

The same is true at Tacoma Rescue Mission shelters, according to executive director Duke Paulsen.

There, COVID-19 related precautions have reduced nightly capacity at the men’s shelter by roughly 40 beds, from 130 to 90, while the new women’s shelter has 30 fewer beds than anticipated.

During inclement weather, it’s not unusual for the men’s shelter to house 200 or more, Paulsen explained, but between the men’s and women’s shelters, COVID-19 precautions have meant the Rescue Mission currently has 140 fewer beds than they expected to have this year.

So how are service providers responding?

On a shoestring and a prayer, as always, which is precisely the problem.

Since March, Catholic Community Services has been paying to house an additional 60 vulnerable shelter users at a local hotel, Hunthausen said.

He also said the agency could expand shelter space into the conference rooms and open space of a neighboring building, at least in a worst-case scenario — like a new COVID-19 breakout at Nativity House — but he’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.

Paulsen said the Rescue Mission will again partner with Bellarmine Prep — as it did during the summer — to increase shelter beds when the weather gets cold this winter. He also announced plans to partner with the recently vacated Holy Rosary school building, which — starting next week — will have the ability to house 35 men every night.

Perhaps unintentionally, Paulsen also revealed how fraught and tenuous these efforts can be in Tacoma.

Yes, his agency has scraped together a plan to pick up the slack this winter, but he fears some of the CARES Act funding the county has provided will run dry at the end of December, and he’s in desperate need of more volunteers.

“If anybody in the community wants to help pull a night shift and just be present, that would be helpful,” Paulsen pleaded.

For Tacoma, it’s a familiar song and dance, and one that’s growing tired.

It’s been more than three years since Tacoma declared homelessness a public health emergency.

It’s been eight months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Three people have died this month.

Not nearly enough has changed.

According to Kevin Glackin-Coley, the newly hired director of special projects at the Tacoma-Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness, the takeaway is obvious.

While he believes the city is committed to finding solutions and there are people and organizations in the community ready to help, there’s little doubt more can be done.

Naturally, his biggest concern is funding and where it will come from.

“It’s not hyperbole to say this is a matter of life and death for people,” Glackin-Coley told The News Tribune.

Unfortunately, we know he’s right.


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