Tacoma’s new tent shelter site navigates weather, residents’ concerns
It’s been cold and wet the past few weeks in Tacoma. That’s had an impact on the residents of Tacoma’s new temporary tent-shelter mitigation site, Forging Paths, off of 35th and Pacific Avenue.
A resident at the site, who preferred to go by his first name Cash for privacy reasons, said one downside of living at the site has been a lack of preparation and foresight for how the weather would impact the tents.
“What happened was the walls leak, and the floors get — water gets in underneath, underneath the walls and our floors are soaking wet,” Cash said. “And it’s actually ruined and damaged a lot of our belongings.”
Cash is one of 50 residents living at the site, which contains rows of tents mounted on wooden pallets. The tents, provided by the city, are made for ice fishing, and gravel underneath the pallets are meant to drain water. But with rain and snow, water has collected on top of the tents and seeped inside.
The city partnered with the Tacoma Rescue Mission to operate the site. Staffers with the mission have covered each tent with plastic tarps until canopy structures come, which they hope will provide more sturdy, weather-resistant roofing.
Bruce Skellen, another resident of the site, showed NWPB how water has seeped into the bottom of his tent and how water damage caused the wooden platforms beneath the tents to bubble up.
“In Washington, come on, Washington State, water is going to do a lot of the damage,” Skellen said. “So when you build something, you gotta allow for that water.”
Both Skellen and Cash suggested the city drill holes in the platforms to drain the water.
Nate Cooper, director of emergency services with the Tacoma Rescue Mission, said their goal is to learn from the residents’ feedback and make adjustments, such as how to deal with the weather.
“We are getting canopies that are gonna go completely over the top of the tents,” Cooper said. “We’re working with them [residents] to get holes drilled into the actual platform for drainage. And then hopefully, in the near future, if these tents find to be even more problems, [work on] replacing them.”
Cooper said it’s been a learning curve since the site opened in November.
“We’re trying to do the best for them [residents], and for the community at large,” Cooper said. “We are trying to get them to be committed to this community. So their feedback, what their likes or dislikes [are], and taking those and trying to make what we have here better is our goal.”
This site is not the first emergency mitigation site the city has set up, but it’s unique in that it was made to house people who had lived at a nearby encampment that has been cleared out, said Caleb Carbone, the City of Tacoma homeless strategy systems and service manager.
“It’s trying to address the need that was specifically the encampment at 34th and Pacific,” Carbone said of the new mitigation site.
In October, the Tacoma City Council passed a ban on encampments within 10 blocks of existing shelter sites and protected waterways.
That meant closing the 34th and Pacific site and, so far, two other encampments. Information about encampment removals, including ones that are in progress, can be found on the city’s website.
Advocates have argued that the encampment ban doesn’t solve the homelessness crisis in the city, but instead, it displaces and traumatizes people.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards amended the encampment ban to begin Nov. 14, which would coincide with the opening of this site, in an attempt to provide people cleared out of encampments with more shelter options.
The mitigation site is just a block or so from that former encampment, which meant people who live there could stay in the same neighborhood and keep community connections like family, friends, jobs and other services they might have connected with while living at the now-closed encampment.
Carbone estimated five to seven people who were living at the 34th and Pacific encampment chose not to transfer to the mitigation site.
All 50 tents at the Forging Paths mitigation site were occupied as of Dec. 5.
While the city created the Forging Paths site to provide better, authorized shelter to people who came from the encampment at 34th and Pacific, the plans to create it began before the city council proposed the encampment ban, Carbone said.
“Initially, when we were planning on this, we were just trying to meet the needs specifically for folks that wanted to do more of a tent style shelter,” Carbone said.
The encampment had been in place for a number of years and is on property where Mercy Housing, an affordable housing organization, is going to develop housing, so Carbone said the city needed a plan to transition people off the area.
He said two years ago, “We [the city] did a survey and asked individuals what type of shelter that they would like and that was not available to them currently at the time.”
People said they wanted tents.
Most of the people living at the 34th and Pacific encampment lived in tents.
“Advocates in the community have also increased their ask of this type of shelter to be built and be available to folks that would need and want to live specifically in a tent and a mitigation site as they’re trying to transition into stability,” Carbone said.
Pierce County gave the property where the tents are now set up to the city of Tacoma as a place to build mixed housing. Carbone said that agreement allowed the city to use the property for temporary shelter.
At the Forging Paths mitigation site, rows of tents face each other, similar to how blocks of houses face each other on a shared street. Lighting through the community properly illuminates the space, while also giving resident privacy. There are portable toilets serviced daily and a shower trailer with eight shower stalls.
Luis Rivera Zayas, the senior director of operations for Tacoma Rescue Mission, said outlets for each tent connect residents to power, where they also can plug in the heaters provided by the mission.
“Again, it’s all about dignity,” Zayas said.
Three case managers will work out of an office trailer at the site, each handling a caseload of between 15 and 16 residents.
“We’re emphasizing case management, engagement, engagement, engagement. We’re not in the business of warehousing people. We’re in the business of engaging with people,” Zayas said.
Each person who moves into the community will get their own tent, and folks are allowed to bring their pets.
While the shelter community has no barriers to entry, Zayas said the mission works to connect those with physical disabilities to other shelter options. The site is not ADA accessible.
Zayas said they are working with the city regarding the recently enacted encampment ban. They provide constant communication on the number of available beds in their main shelter and this new mitigation site to the city’s Homeless Engagement Alternatives Liaison team, which is in charge of encampment removal.
Regarding the encampment ban, Zayas said, “I believe that the people that were working in there [the city] believe that that is a way that we could mitigate and actually try to get people to better places.”
Zayas, who has worked in the field of housing services and outreach since 2016, said he’s never seen so many encampments around the city.
“These last two years were pretty difficult for the people experiencing homelessness,” Zayas said. “So it’s difficult. And I know that there are mixed feelings out there. We have outreach teams, just going out there and trying to connect people to resources.”
This mitigation site isn’t meant to solve people’s housing problems long-term. It’s a temporary solution to connect people with resources that will ideally result in permanent housing.
“This is an example of doing a safe thing,” Zayas said. “We’re going from an uncontrolled situation to a controlled situation where we’re actually also providing safety to the people that live here.”
For Cash, living at this site has so far made a difference.
“I started camping a year ago at the homeless camp that was next door, on my own,” Cash said. “They moved us over here about two weeks ago. That was a blessing, really, because they’re providing us with showers and a place to rest that’s warm and they provide heaters for us, electricity, to me these are good things.”
Cash has been able to find a job in those two weeks — which he attributes to being able to shower regularly and having a stable place to rest.
But, he said, some of the oversight has been hard. He doesn’t understand the restriction that residents can’t have visitors at the site before 9:30 a.m.
Carbone said rules and regulations at the mitigation site are meant to keep people living and working at the site safe.
But, Cash said he thinks the rules feel more like a “power play.”
“Maybe someone’s power thirsty or feel like they need to be in control or I don’t know what it is,” Cash said.
Cash said he also had to downsize his belongings that didn’t fit inside his tent or in outside storage bins provided for residents of the mitigation site. He said he wished there was more storage for residents.
Cash’s partner is also staying at the site. Cash said staffers suggested the two of them could move into one tent and store their belongings in the other tent because each person is given their own tent. But Cash said that’s a decision he and his partner will make when they’re ready.
“The exchange for my freedoms that I had before — I’m still doing the hand toss whether or not I’m even going to stay,” Cash said.
He said he’s going to let what he calls the “micromanaging” from the staffers at the site be the “wind in his wings” to move on to a more permanent housing situation.