City of Tacoma declares state of public health emergency over homelessness

TACOMA, Wash. -- Yet another Puget Sound community declared homelessness an emergency, this time in Tacoma.

The city’s goal, according to Mayor Marilyn Strickland, would be to provide outreach and alternative shelter options for a growing homeless population that is already stretching the city’s capacity.

Strickland said most of the homeless people in in the area came from outside the city but not from Seattle.

Either way, an emergency declaration is intended to slash red tape and get services to the homeless quickly.

“The truth is there’s not enough capacity for everybody,” said Noah Baskett with the Tacoma Rescue Mission.

The truth is hard to miss; homeless people can be found on city sidewalks and in greenbelts around downtown Tacoma.

The city is dealing with an exploding homeless population, and Strickland said an emergency declaration could mean more vulnerable people get services, shelter and housing.

“Homelessness is manifesting itself in many different ways and we’re trying to figure out how we can deal with it from an emergency standpoint to stabilize folks but also think about long-term ways to address some of the big structural issues that take place with homelessness,” she said.

The City of Destiny already saw its own ‘Jungle’ homeless camp sweep last month where nearly 200 were evicted from underneath Interstate 705. The sweep happened at a time when most local homeless shelters are over capacity.

“When you clear encampments, visibility becomes much greater,” said Strickland. “As we’re being asked to clean encampments, we’re seeing people on the streets because they have nowhere to go.”

More than 1,300 people were found in the greater Tacoma area during this year’s point-in-time count. Of those, 21% are considered chronically homeless, 14% had children, 41% are people of color and 10% are military veterans.

Strickland said the emergency declaration could eventually establish temporary emergency shelters and transitional housing – but very quickly clean up public health issues, like piles of garbage and spent needles.

Strickland also expects Tacoma Police to hit problem areas, telling The News Tribune, “We can’t do this the right way if we don’t have an enforcement component.”

“There’s not an easy solution for any of this,” said Baskett.

The Tacoma Rescue Mission says its shelter was designed for 60 but its building downtown is housing more than double that.

“We’re at a 125 every day that we just fill the hallway with cots and mats on the floor, so we’ve seen this issue grow over time,” said Baskett.

The city is also finding more people living in their cars, some say because of rising rents in Tacoma.

“By declaring it an emergency it will give us the opportunity to take on some issues we may not be able to normally,” said Strickland.

The Tacoma City Council voted Tuesday night to declare an emergency.