Never mind that homeless encampments are illegal in Tacoma, and with good reason. They are unsafe and unhealthy – and that’s for the people who live in them. For neighbors, they’re biohazard and crime magnets.
When the city of Tacoma outlawed them, it was in conjunction with Housing First programs aimed at getting encampment residents into housing with the support of social services.
The switch did not work for everyone. Some people had felonies and couldn’t find housing. Some got into housing but lost it. So police and public works crews have kept busy shutting down and cleaning up the illegal camps.
That’s what was going on this morning at one of the freeway bridges on 34th Street two blocks east of Pacific Avenue.
Tacoma Police Community Liaison officer Bert Hayes had heard complaints about a man living under the bridge east of Stanley & Seafort’s restaurant. Hayes visited with the man and told him he had to leave. Then he posted No Trespassing signs to underline the point. Monday he came to make sure the man had left.
"I show up at 7:30 a.m., and they’re still snug as a bug," Hayes said of the man and a woman who also was there.
Hayes told them to clear his stuff out or lose it. The man took what he wanted – a fold-up cot and a few bags – and left about a dump truck’s worth of junk for the community service work crew Hayes had called.
They hauled the garbage out while the man walked over to Pacific Avenue to buy a cup of coffee and call his sister.
"He asked me why I was doing this to him when he was down on his luck," Hayes said. "I asked him, ‘Why are you trespassing and costing the taxpayers thousands of dollars?’"
In part, the guy could trespass because a request for a fence to block access to the underpass had, as Hayes said, "fallen through the cracks."
That was an expensive oversight, considering the landfill bill and the work time for Hayes, the Community Based Services team that called in the dump truck, and the community service crew supervised by Paul Nielsen.
"They’re constantly cleaning up encampments," Hayes said of the court-ordered crew.
The homeless man and his sister talked nearby. Their mother had said she’d pick her son up, and they were waiting for her.
He’d tried to get into a Housing First program, he said, but could not, in part because he has felonies on his record. He takes jobs through a casual labor company. He’s weary of a system he believes profits from keeping him working for minimum wage.
Despite that, his sister was happy to hear about Project Homeless Connect, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 15 at the Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall. The one-day event will give people who are homeless a one-stop opportunity to meet with medical and social services providers.
"We’ll be there," she said, and looked at her brother.
Better there than sleeping under a bridge.
Better for him.
Better for all of us.