Tacoma might sue opioid makers as part of battle against homelessness

Craig Frady rolls up his sleeping bag while breaking down his tent site at a homeless camp underneath the Interstate 705 overpass. The camp was closed by city and state officials in Tacoma on April 13. Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com
Craig Frady rolls up his sleeping bag while breaking down his tent site at a homeless camp underneath the Interstate 705 overpass. The camp was closed by city and state officials in Tacoma on April 13. Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com

The city of Tacoma is considering suing the manufacturers of opioids, such as OxyContin, as part of its battle against what some city leaders are calling a homelessness crisis.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland announced the potential move at Tuesday’s regular City Council meeting.

“We are going to look at possible litigation regarding the opioid epidemic and look at how we can file suit against opioid manufacturers in an effort to reverse the trend on opioid addiction and hold them accountable for their decisions and actions,” Strickland said.

“A lot of folks who are addicted have opioid problems, and we want to make sure were looking at the entire system.”

Facing growing numbers of homeless camps, the City Council voted Tuesday to declare a public health emergency, one of the first steps in the city’s developing plan to to get a handle on the homelessness problem.

Strickland last week said the city was in the midst of a homelessness crisis, and on Monday she spoke in more detail with The News Tribune about a three-phased approach to mitigate the negative impacts of homelessness on the community and businesses and get people into housing and connected to resources.

Declaring a public health emergency — appropriate because of the health and sanitation issues that pervade homeless camps, Strickland said — will allow the city to use local authority to waive certain regulations that will help it move faster on the second phase of the plan: finding sites for and creating temporary housing.

“This is our desire to come up with a phased approach with the understanding that we are not going to be able to make a promise of eradicating homelessness,” Strickland said. “I think there are things we can do immediately using our powers to try and mitigate some of the … human suffering and help the neighbors and address the public health issues.”

Related to the homelessness issue and its causes — including domestic violence, mental health and substance abuse problems, the mayor said — the council is talking about suing opioid manufacturers, as the city of Everett did when it sued Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin.

There are at least 50 homeless camps in Tacoma, according to the city’s estimates. The encampments are unsanitary because they don’t have clean water and there usually aren’t bathrooms or places to properly dispose of trash, needles and medical waste.

This year, the pace for camp cleanups has been nearly 50 percent higher than last year, the city said.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud