City staff working on Tacoma’s effort to combat homelessness have come up with a big ask for 2018: an additional $6-7 million to continue addressing what’s been declared a public-health emergency.
The money would pay for continued work to transition people out of homelessness while also maintaining law-enforcement efforts that have been key to keeping city promises to businesses and residents tired of the negative impacts homelessness can bring.
The plan includes continuing the tent city-like stability site in the Dome District that shelters roughly 84 people a week, hiring more police officers and potentially buying the former Calico Cat motel for use as a transition site for homeless folks trying to find work.
Maintaining the stability site and potentially purchasing the Calico Cat represent the biggest chunks of cash, but the staff proposal also calls for spending $1 million to beef up the law enforcement portion of the city’s overall homelessness plan.
A team of police officers that have been temporarily assigned to serve on the city’s homeless outreach team would continue to do so, and the city would use the additional money to hire four new full-time officers to permanently replace them, city manager Elizabeth Pauli said last week. The city has also authorized more overtime in the police department to help with speeding up background checks so they can get new officers hired and trained faster.
The additional spending on law enforcement is meant to appease some Tacomans who complain about negative impacts that can accompany homelessness.
“I was at a meeting last week at Birney Elementary, and a guy said, ‘I have a guy defecating on my neighbor’s lawn right in front of me, and you call me and you tell me to call 311 and no one comes, and now you’re spending (millions of) dollars on a tent city, so where is the support for us?’” recalled Councilman Conor McCarthy last week.
The council also voted last week to extend a ban on public camping in the city until the end of the year, another piece of its plan to mitigate impacts for residents who have found the problem at their doorstep.
McCarthy said he supports continuing the stability site and keeping up efforts to transition people experiencing homelessness to a better life, but he added balance is key.
“If people need help, we’ll provide a safe, secure place, but we’re also going to provide enforcement, because we still need to protect regular-old people and businesses,” he said
Since the city operates on a two-year budget and 2017 is the first year of the current spending plan, the City Council will have to decide if it wants to keep all the recommendations and add that money for 2018. Those discussions will start in November and will be done by the end of the year.
It’s possible that some of the staff recommendations could be adopted, while others may not make the cut.
Here are some of the key recommendations:
The former Calico Cat
City officials are negotiating to buy the formerly meth-infested motel in South Tacoma to house 20 to 28 working or work-ready homeless folks who are on their way to being ready to transition into more independent types of housing.
Right now at the Dome District stability site, there are roughly five residents who have some sort of earned income. Nine are ready for jobs, and 15 are able to work, according to a staff presentation delivered to the council at last week’s study session.
The plan calls for people transferred to the Calico Cat to stay there for about six months, with a maximum stay of 18 months. Living there would be contingent upon ongoing, documented work of some kind. They would get training and be hooked up with job services, and would be aided in their efforts to find housing.
Establishing this “readiness site,” as the city is calling it, would cost $2-3 million.
Nonprofits would be able to open temporary shelters
The City Council soon will consider whether to allow nonprofits to open indoor and outdoor temporary shelters across the city.
As part of the emergency declaration, the city created interim rules to allow faith-based organizations to apply for permits to open shelters, with a maximum of two citywide. None have applied.
Staff now wants to broaden those rules to allow nonprofits other than faith-based organizations to apply to run temporary shelters as well and to increase the number of such shelters from two to six at any one time.
It would also nearly double the amount of time those shelters could stay open, from 93 days to 185 days, and would shorten the amount of time the shelter would have to take a break before reopening, from two years to six months.
The shelters would have to be spread across the city and not be concentrated in any one area, Pauli said. She said they expect there would be some cost associated with helping an organization open a shelter, but most of the costs would be incurred by the nonprofit or faith-based organization.
The bottleneck: Finding permanent housing
Right now, roughly 84 percent of the homeless living at the city’s stability site are chronically homeless and have at least one disability. These are people who likely aren’t going to transition into jobs and average housing. They need permanent, supportive housing that offers services and care.
The problem is there is a massive scarcity of that kind of housing in Tacoma and Pierce County. Of the roughly 140 people who have been served at the stability site since it opened in June, nine people have transitioned into housing. Throughout the county, only 15 people are placed in permanent supportive housing each month, according to city staff.
The city said it wants to work with agencies and organizations across Pierce County to try to address that problem so they can pool resources and share the cost. One of Tacoma’s gripes has been that homelessness is a regional and countywide problem, and Tacoma ends up footing the bill.
While council members have been supportive of the homelessness plan as it’s been developed, some voiced concern that people aren’t moving on from the stability site quickly enough. Pauli said going forward, the city will emphasize to homeless people using the site that it is a stepping stone and not meant as permanent housing.
“No one agrees that this is where people who need permanent, supportive housing should be living,” she said.
“There is a relatively slow rate of transition from the stability site … I want to be clear that it’s not slow for the individuals we’re talking about who have these high barriers to being placed in other housing. This stabilization period for other individuals is critical, and frankly three months is not a long time for that to happen for nine people.”