43 Unhoused People Occupied the Port of Tacoma Travelodge over Christmas

Story and photos by Henry Stewart-Wood

Unhoused Tacomans and activists with Tacoma Housing Now occupied the Port of Tacoma Travelodge on Pacific Highway in Fife for six days before getting evicted by Fife police. 

Part one: The Occupation 

After five unhoused Tacomans died of exposure this winter alone, activists with the direct-action group Tacoma Housing Now vowed to prevent additional deaths.

On Christmas Eve, the group paid for 43 unhoused residents to stay overnight in the Travelodge motel. The next day members of Tacoma Housing Now informed Travelodge management that they would not be leaving their rooms, or paying for any more nights. Tacoma Housing Now said the City of Tacoma is responsible for paying the bill. 

“(Pierce) County has gotten a lot of CARES act money, they haven’t spent all of it. Cities like Puyallup are using CARES act money to pay for homeless people to stay in motels so we think that Tacoma and Fife should be doing that as well,” said Rebecca Parson, the spokesperson for Tacoma Housing Now. 

Parson said Tacoma Housing Now does not intend to hurt a business struggling during the pandemic; they want Travelodge to be paid.

“When the city and county actually pay for these rooms, it’s a win-win because they keep people from freezing to death, and they help a business owner struggling during the pandemic,” Parson said.

Travelodge management worked with the group and extended their stay until Sunday Dec. 27. When Sunday came there was no response from the city, Parson said. Fearing the worst, Tacoma Housing Now made a call to action on Twitter, asking for supporters to show up at the Travelodge Monday morning to defend against a possible eviction by police. Travelodge management could not be reached to comment for this story. 

On Monday, as the early morning fog burned off at around 11 a.m., a crowd of about 50 people rallied in the Travelodge parking lot. Activists held signs with phrases like “Housing Now” and “Community Land Trust, Housing for All!” as members from Tacoma Housing Now gave speeches through a megaphone before passing it through the crowd for anyone to use. 

“Tacoma could not have done this alone, there’s just not enough of us, people power is what’s keeping us here,” one activist with Tacoma Housing Now said. 

Folks from Seattle, Olympia and even Portland spoke to show their solidarity with Tacoma’s struggle for housing. 

Parson explained that part of the inspiration to organize Monday’s rally came from Portland’s Red House eviction defense, where protestors successfully blocked police from evicting a BIPOC family from their home. 

Although there was no attempt by police to evict the folks staying at the Travelodge, Tacoma Housing Now organizers felt the rally was a success. To them the rally showed there is enough power and solidarity to continue their fight for housing. 

Hotel occupations and eviction defense rallies are not the only actions Tacoma Housing Now are taking. Their ultimate goal is to get the city to transfer vacant buildings into a community land trust where they will be used as shelters and low-income housing managed by Tacomans for Tacomans. 

“We have the legal structure filed with the state, we have that community land trust ready. All the city has to do is put empty public buildings into it and we will house people there. We’ll provide extremely low-income housing with the ultimate goal of ending homelessness in Tacoma. We just think it’s wrong that there are these empty public buildings and people are dying on the streets,” Parson said. 

Parson said their biggest inspiration is Philadelphia Housing Action, a similar direct-action group that was successful in getting the City of Philadelphia to hand over 50 vacant buildings to the group’s community land trust. 

Philadelphia Housing Action’s success did not come easy, though. The buildings were allocated to the land trust only after six months of direct-action similar to the Travelodge occupation. 

In Philadelphia’s case, the buildings in the community land trust are permanently designated for use as “extremely low-income housing” and will be managed by local control committees, according to Philadelphia Housing Action’s press release

It’s not hard to imagine something similar taking place in Tacoma, a city home to a vacant K-Mart, a closed Safeway, an abandoned Gault Middle School, and many empty houses. This is the same city where in 2019 the average price a home sold for was $529,600 and the average rent was $1,138 — the same city where the 2019 per capita income was $33,064

Part two: The Eviction

The rally Monday morning faded out without much excitement, after the speeches were over the crowd thinned out until it was just the people staying at the Travelodge and Tacoma Housing Now members. It looked like the occupation would continue. 

Not much happened the next day. Aside from Tacoma Housing Now reporting that “CHUDS” were in the area (CHUD is a term used by leftists to describe Proudboys, Boogaloo Boys, Neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists). 

Tuesday seemed to be another success for Tacoma Housing Now activists. 

The relative calmness for the unhoused folk staying at the Travelodge ended Wednesday morning. Tacoma Housing Now sent out a text alert to its followers that read:

 “Cops are at the port of Tacoma travel lodge to evict, show up now to support our residents!”

The scene at the Travelodge on the morning of Wednesday Dec. 30. had changed drastically since the rally on Monday.

Fife police cars covered the Travelodge parking lot, blocking both entrances. A crowd of about 30 people stood on the sidewalk a chain link fence separated them from the Travelodge. Several motorcycle police posted up in Pacific Highway’s middle lane. Police cars were parked in nearly every surrounding parking lot. 

Outside the Travelodge police in white hazmat suits milled about in the parking lot and the upper levels of the motel. Activists and unhoused people moved their belongings from motel rooms into cars.

From the other side of the fence, housing activists mostly dressed in black bloc, shouted at the police for evicting unhoused people in the middle of winter during a pandemic. “Housing is a human right, how do you sleep at night?” they chanted.

Amber, a woman evicted from the motel explained how the six-night stay at the motel helped her.

“It was definitely less of a stress, it was easier to get things done, to be able to make a step forward,” Amber said.

Amber continued to explain what happened the morning of the eviction. 

“I woke up with [the police] in my room, they just said everyone has to get up and get out. Get your stuff and get out basically,” Amber said. 

Amber said none of the police who evicted her told her about beds or shelters made available to the people being evicted. She said she was going back to the camp by the river. 

“The river is more safe than I’ve felt anywhere else. The people I’m around down at the river I consider them family. Even if there are times when we aren’t on good terms or we don’t get along we still are there for one another. We take care of eachother, we’re not just a community, we’re a family,” Amber said. 

Tacoma Housing Now Tweeted that the City of Tacoma offered 10 tiny homes as an alternative to the Travelodge. They argued the city’s offer was insufficient for the 43 people sheltered in the motel, most of whom were single men who aren’t eligible for tiny homes, Parson said. However, one person from the occupation did end up seeking shelter at a tiny home, Parson said.

About a dozen alt-right extremists were present during the eviction as well. It wasn’t clear whether they showed up to support police and the business owner or to intimidate and harass activists and the unhoused who were being evicted.

Many of these extremists were armed and sporting bulletproof vests. One man wore a patch on his vest for the far-right militia the Oath Keepers, another threw up an apparent white power handsign

At one point the group of alt-right extremists hurled insults and slurs at two unhoused people who were standing on the sidewalk, waiting for a ride out. A group of housing activists in black bloc formed a human wall to protect the unhoused from the extremists.

Later the alt-right extremists crowded around a young activist. They ridiculed the activist for identifying as non-binary, and made vague threats of violence and murder. 

Parson said several Tacoma Housing Now activists were threatened with violence and stalked by the extremists. The Travelodge occupation came on the radar of right-wing extremists after the disgraced journalist and fascist sympathizer Andy Ngo Tweeted about it. 

“They told one of our organizers ‘We know where you live now bitch. See you later.’ All of that was going on because right winger Jason Rantz picked up the story he was talking about on the radio, and Andy Ngo Tweeted a video with me in it,” Parson said. 

The Fife Chief of Police, Pete Fisher, said his department decided to evict everyone staying at the motel in response to mounting pressure from the public for police to act. He also said there were threats of violence towards the unhoused. 

“The outcry that we got from the public, and people saying they’re gonna come armed and that they’re gonna evict people themselves,” Fisher said. “It was too volatile to wait, so we pushed up our timetable.”

Despite this, police did not intervene when the armed extremists harassed and threatened the very same people the police were evicting and supposedly protecting. 

According to Fisher, beds were offered to the unhoused people who were evicted, but it was not clear where those shelters were.

“We don’t have 40 shelter beds in Fife, there’s voucher programs, so I can’t tell you where those beds are,” Fisher said. 

Although no arrests were made Wednesday morning, Fisher said:  “Any activity that occurred here that is a violation of law, and those that we can hold accountable, we will be held accountable.”  

Parson said they have a team of lawyers ready to defend Tacoma Housing Now and the unhoused people who stayed at the motel. 

Tacoma Housing Now received some criticism from other activist groups in Tacoma after the eviction for the way they occupied the motel. Tacoma Mutual Aid Collective suggested in a Tweet that the occupation of the Travelodge by Tacoma Housing Now put homeless people staying in the motel in a bad position. 

Rebecca Parson said that’s not the case, Tacoma Housing Now doesn’t make decisions for the unhoused people they help. The 43 occupiers went there knowing the risks and knowing they could be kicked out at any time. 

“We said look, we might get kicked out the next day. At the very least, you’ll be out of the cold for one night. Given the fact that it might only be one night, do you still want to do it? And they did,” Parson said. 

Parson continued to explain how Tacoma Housing Now goes about planning these actions with unhoused people. 

“We have meetings at Camp every week in person so they can participate, they decide what happens. They’re full and equal organizers with us.”

Other activists were disappointed by a bizarre string of Tweets that have since been deleted by Tacoma Housing Now that claimed the motel owner of allowed sex-trafficking to happen.  Parson said residents told Tacoma Housing Now that the motel is notorious for illegal activity.

Despite the eviction and criticism, Tacoma Housing Now considers the occupation a success. 

“For those six nights, people weren’t at risk of freezing to death, and they got to have showers and some of them were really enjoying doing self care and hygiene,” Parson said. “You know, at least for six nights, they got to have what the rest of us have every day.”

Tacoma Housing Now is still committed to get housing for every Tacoman. Activists are working to provide continuous support to unhoused people. Currently they’re bringing food and supplies to the camps weekly and organizing trash pickup. If you’re interested in getting involved, message Tacoma Housing Now on any of their social media platforms:

  1. On Tacoma Ave, down by 25th, the old Goodwill building is empty. It’s big. It has a number of bathrooms, a kitchen….it’s empty….use it!

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