Story by Your friendly neighborhood homeless industrial complex worker
Photos by Danica Thomas
Standing atop a muddy, trash covered hill, feeling the wind blow hard against you, the roar of I-5 so loud you have to shout to be heard, it’s hard to imagine people living like this. But they are. They do. Almost 30 tent and tarp structures shelter 56 humans on the berm above 84th and Hosmer. Without regard for what we think, without the luxury of regard, they live on. Tens of thousands of us housed folks drive by this encampment everyday. If we noticed it, we learn to stop noticing.
The humans living on this hill are almost exclusively people of color, mostly Black, between the ages of teenager and a thousand. Some have jobs. Some fly signs. Some have kids staying with relatives. I hear a story about a kid who stays with their parent in a tent on weekends but has to stay with their parent’s family during the week. Because school buses won’t pick up from homeless camps. Some had kids when they were housed and now they don’t. Some don’t want to talk about it. Luckily, some do.
I talked to a person who has been on a housing waitlist for 7 years. I talk to a person whose marriage imploded and they lost everything but their van, which they slept in until it got towed. I talked to a person who lost both their jobs at the onset of the pandemic, became unable to pay rent, had no understanding of the eviction moratorium, and was bullied out of their apartment. I talked to a young person, barely 20, child like in their mannerisms, who said they were addicted to drugs and always would be. I talked to a person who told me to go away. They said that people like me always got handouts, but never, not once, do we got a way out.
Every story told me by every person staying on this god forsaken hill ended the same, “and I’ve been on the hill ever since.” It’s hard to stop hearing, and like an echo, they slowly fade together. “been on the hill ever since, the hill ever since, hill ever since, ever since.” These are not enemies of society, they are outcasts. Society cast them out. We hold the power to bring them back. There are 56 humans on this muddy, trash infested crest that no Boy Scout troop in the history of ever would dare camp out on. 56 different stories of how they got to this hilltop, and now they all got to get down.
On October 11th the Tacoma City Council passed an ordinance banning homeless encampments within 200 feet of any Tacoma waterway and within ten blocks of the city’s homeless shelters. Enforcement of the ban will start on Monday November 14th and the ironically named “HEAL” (Homeless Engagement Alternatives Liaisons, which include Tacoma police officers, a code compliance officer, outreach staff and a “DCR” which stands for designated crisis responder, which means a mental health professional with the power to detain) team will be tasked with removing all offending encampments. The criminal punishments for homelessness, according to this ban, carry a maximum fine of $250 and up to 30 days imprisonment.
The ridiculous process of sweeping homeless camps already happens with alarming regularity. This ordinance just gives the sweeps more targets. Infinite targets. And teeth. Currently, when a specific encampment’s poverty becomes too ugly for the local housed folks to go on witnessing, the city collects complaints, looks for code violations and builds a case until eventually a representative from the HEAL team posts 72 hour notice that the camp will be cleared. Nobody gets arrested and generally, the city contacts local service providers and the Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness to let them know a sweep is coming 14 days in advance. In the days leading up to the sweep, outreachers do their best to engage the homeless campers and offer the limited shelter services Tacoma has available. On the day of the sweep, the HEAL team shows up and re-offers anyone still at the site the same services and then clears the site. No one ever gets housed as the result of a sweep, but also no one gets arrested. These sweeps, by and large, do not connect many people to services.
The sweeps rarely connect homeless folks to services, mostly because a lack of service connection is rarely the difference between housed and unhoused people. The difference is in the choices available; homeless folks stay homeless when the only help offered is not the type of help needed. Nobody wants to be living outside in an unsecure tent with no water and food or place to bathe and shit. The folks who live in homeless encampments are generally there because the services available have not and do not fit their needs. And when our solution to homelessness does not include a housing first model that diversifies and individually tailors services to the diverse array of homeless individuals encountered, we create a subclass of unhouseables, of outcasts. We call them the service resistant and not yet housing-ready and eventually, the chronically homeless. We excuse our societal ineptitude with the comforting half-truth that they choose to stay homeless, and the accompanying implication, that they deserve it.
We never see the forest through the trees. We chase our tails. Such is the idiocy of sweeps. We identify clusters of unhoused folks who our services have failed and offer those same services with a stick, saying take this specific assistance or we’re trashing anything you can’t carry away. And it almost never leads to the resolution of homelessness. But it does effectively run homeless folks living in encampments out of the area targeted for clean-up, chasing people with almost nothing around the city, away from whatever they have managed to cobble together and call a life, chasing them further into destitution, dismay and destruction. And usually into a new neighborhood. It does do that.
The homeless encampment on the hill above Hosmer and 84th will be swept. It is within 10 city blocks of Aspen Court, which used to be the Comfort Inn but is now a temporary shelter run by LIHI, the Low Income Housing Institute out of Seattle. Aspen Court’s one of the listed shelter sites on the new ordinance, a site in need of being buffered from the ten block incursion of any of those unsightly encampment-dwelling homeless folks. Like the 56 humans living on the hill. That uninhabitable dirt mound between Interstate 5 and Hosmer St. will be cleared of all humans and their piles of possessions/waste shortly. But this time, instead of sweeping them further down the drain, WSDOT and their partners are intentionally getting to know the individual humans at the encampment, offering a bevy of available services catered to individual needs, services that include housing. As opposed to further casting out our homeless neighbors from society, instead of valuing the public space occupied over the people occupying it, the feds have purchased housing and services to welcome our fellow humans experiencing unsheltered homelessness back into civilization. The hill above Hosmer will be cleared correctly, compassionately, prioritizing people over parcels of uninhabitable land. It will be Pierce County’s first go at a true housing first, harm reduction methodology of encampment intervention.
The new 143-million-dollar state and local partnership is called the Right of Way Safety Initiative. The Washington State Patrol, Department of Transportation and Department of Commerce are teaming with King, Thurston, Snohomish, Spokane and Pierce counties and their respective local providers to clear our highways and byways of the homeless humans living on the land immediately surrounding them, or what is called, the “right of way.” The intention, make no mistake, is still to clear unusable land of the impoverished people using it. But the approach is humane; it isn’t bait and switch or carrot and stick, as per usual. The state is investing in the process of assessing individual needs and then providing suitable solutions, available choices of shelter and housing, before clearing the space. And it’s working.
One of the most reprehensible outcomes of the 20ish City of Tacoma encampment sweeps completed so far this year, is after running off all the homeless humans previously occupying the now empty space, the city publishes their “HEAL” team outputs. They will list on their website how many humans they removed from the area and of that number, how many accepted services. And, randomly, they include a number for pounds of trash removed. The implications are hard to miss. The city’s listings do not include any other useful incidental information, like if the services offered fit the demographics of those they were offered to, or if the resources were actually even available when offered, or if anyone doing the offering actually attempted to understand the individual needs of those they are offering services too or even that these services and resources are being offered by TPD officers and city of Tacoma employees who are either threatening to or are actively displacing the folks they are offering to serve. None of that is included. Just the stats.
South J and 13th encampment cleared, 22 individuals contacted, 6 accepted resources. 7th and Tacoma Ave encampment cleared, 36 individuals contacted, 13 accepted resources. And the listing of the pounds of trash cleaned up at each site. Again with no context. Just, J and 4th encampment cleared, 7 individuals contacted, 2 accepted resources, 6,760 pounds of trash. No mention that the average individual in the US creates 1,700 pounds of trash a year, which means 7 people with no trash service creating 7,000 pounds of trash at an encampment they’ve probably been at for over a year is in no way outside the norm. All of this uncontextualized information being made public is disingenuous, at best. One could also call it victim blaming, civic bullyboy bullshit, a situation where the folks with power are publicly pointing at the folks with none and calling them the problem. The problem that refuses to fix itself.
After undergoing a completely different process, the Right of Way Safety Initiative encampment clearings are also beginning to publish their stats. They recently cleared 98 individuals in King County and of those 98, 77 accepted resources (housing, in this case) and now months later, 73 of those 77 remain housed. There is no number offered for total pounds of trash collected. (Probably because it is not a useful number to quantify unless trying to dispel the correlation between homelessness and trash by lumping them into the same pile.) This report is a far cry from the sweep reports Tacoma gives, both in size and scope. It tells a different story. Not only does it not equate garbage with homelessness, it shows that given an option that fits, when offered services intended to house rather than clear, the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness want services. These numbers eradicate the myth of lazy addicts and criminals who would rather spit in the face of society than re-enter its embrace. They reinforce what all of us homeless service providers already know; that no one wants to be homeless and when offered a legit chance to leave homelessness, they will. It’s time for the City of Tacoma to get on board with a housing first, harm reduction methodology of encampment intervention, because there’s a reason this is working.
The Right of Way initiative starts with what should not be a shocking premise, that homelessness is solved with housing. The federal bean counters in charge of highway encampment sweeps finally caught up to the back-of-the-napkin math anyone can figure, that it’s actually cheaper to house people than sweep and displace them, arrest and detain them, hospitalize and blame them, over and over and over again. After generations of lies passed down like political inheritances, the toxic bootstrap, tough love, methodologies of yesteryear are giving way to compassion and simple math. It’s cheaper to just house people, and more ethical, because housing is a basic human right. That is the foundation upon which Housing First builds from.
Housing First is a statement of prioritization and a humanistic movement. It has its philosophical origins in John Bosco’s Mutual Aid societies and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement and Father Flanagan’s Boys Town. It is a sociological outgrowth of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s the idea that homeless people deserve, first and foremost, a place to live. Housing first is an evidence based practice that prioritizes housing for people experiencing homelessness due to the fact that stabilization and behavioral health services effectiveness increases dramatically when the receiver of services has a home to be served in. It’s all pretty common sense. The Housing First model was pioneered by Pathways to Housing in New York City and DESC in Seattle and has spread across the country proving time and again that the answer to homelessness always starts with housing. The Right of Way program is practicing Housing First by using outreach teams to engage the campers on their property, creating a by-name list of all the campers on DOT property, determining what the exact sheltering needs are for each person on the list and from there providing sustainable housing for them all.
This is not a cheap and easy process. This year is going to cost about 35 million dollars in Pierce County alone. But it is an ethically and fiscally responsible solution. What this means for the 56 folks staying on the hill above 84th and Hosmer, is that each person will be offered shelter that fits their needs, this before the property is cleared. Shelters that work for this population may include the already existing options. But when they don’t, providers will offer other harm reduction, low barrier sheltering choices, like hotel rooms for families from the Helping Hands House or CLR’s subleased houses with individual rooms for up to 32 individuals. While staying at whichever shelter, hotel or subleased room option, service providers will case manage the 56 individuals into their own housing solutions, either apartments paid for by this program until the individual can reestablish stability and take over the payment or into permanent supportive housing. 80 units of permanent supportive housing will be added to Pierce County with the Right of Way funding over the next couple years. We’re probably going to need to triple that number, but 80’s a good start.
This ROW initiative is the only ethical and long-term financially reasonable way to get rid of homeless encampments. And it’s a huge step on the road toward ending chronic homelessness. Unlike the recently passed city of Tacoma’s camping ban, ending chronic homelessness is actually one of this initiative’s goals. They want to clear the public right of way and make it undesirable camping land but they want to achieve that end by housing the folks camping there, by inviting the undesirables, the outcasts, back into civilization and ending their chronic homelessness. They actually mean to house the homeless.
The camping ban approved by every council member besides Keith Blocker, Catherine Ushka and Kiara Daniels is not trying to end homelessness. It is sneaky in the best of lights, downright dirty in regular light. It’s also not constitutional. It will undoubtedly be struck down by the state supreme court when challenged. But between then and now, our most vulnerable neighbors are completely at the city’s mercy. The camping ban is vaguely specific, leaving just the right amount of leeway and use-your-best-judgment to make enforcement a constant discretionary decision. With the 10 block buffer zone around shelter sites and the ban zone around all protected water, an argument for enforcement could be made for nearly anywhere in Tacoma. Which is actually the intention. To always have legal grounds to remove persons experiencing homelessness from wherever they are being homeless whenever the effects of their homelessness causes any amount of inconvenience to the rest of us. There it is.
There are 56 humans on the hill that separates Hosmer and 84th from I-5. They will be cleared from that hill using the new Right of Way initiative. The Department of Transportation, State of Washington, and Pierce County will be paying close attention to those outcomes. We should too. I hope the City of Tacoma pays real close attention. We all have to stop looking away. Banning what we don’t like about reality does not effectively change anything. Criminalizing poverty makes no one less poor. Looking our fellow human beings in the eye, finding out what they need and providing those services—starting with accessible shelter and housing—changes things. The solutions will not be cheap and easy, but sustainability is fiscally responsible.
We have to stop looking away. We’ve trained ourselves to not see suffering, to be unaffected by homelessness. Millions of people will drive by the hill in the months after it is cleared and notice nothing different. They won’t notice the lack of campers because they never saw them to begin with. And of those that do notice, most will assume some governing entity did what had to be done and go on with their lives, unimpressed with the newly cleared land and unburdened with any amount of give-a-shit for the folks who used to camp there. We have to stop looking away.
I think most of us, when push comes to shove, are “ends justify the means” people. We make space in our moral codes, in our innermost consciences, for potentially ugly sacrifices if they serve a greater good or solve a bigger problem. That’s actually why homelessness exists. Because we allow it to. Because the ends, their ends—from exposure in flimsy tents and overdosed on park benches and from natural causes beneath piles of trash—justify our assumptions that trash is what they are, justify our societal and individual hoarding of all the means. It justifies our means. All of us should be supportive of the idea that homeless encampments have no place in society, that sleeping on the street should be unacceptable in a civilization of our considerable means. We should be unanimously against homelessness and equally committed to supporting the humans experiencing homelessness. Until we stop being OK with our fellow human’s abject poverty, our siblings sleeping on sidewalks, beneath overpasses and living on hills above highways unfit for habitation, it will persist. The city council passed a horrendous unconstitutional ordinance that makes criminals out of folks with no way not to be. And we all seal it with our individual stamps of approval everyday by doing nothing. By looking away. By pretending the ends justify the means. It’s time to stop pretending.
If you’re looking for ways to help, the author offers these calls to action:
I’d say there’s 3 main ways to help. The first is to do the work. Bring blankets, sleeping bags, hand warmers, stocking hats, rain gear, socks and gift cards to folks living outside. Or join/volunteer for a group that does this. Join the Pierce County coalition to end homelessness and use your talents/means/resources wherever they are needed. Most area service providers are plugged into this network and ask for specific help from the community all the time. The community answers the call in a thousand different ways.
Secondly, fund this work. Give your money directly to people experiencing homelessness. If this makes you feel some kind of way, Mutual Aid orgs like TMAC and The Peoples Assembly are your best bet to get money directly into the hands of the folks who need it. But if that still doesn’t work for you, donate to nonprofits doing this work. They all run on shoestring budgets and every little bit helps. Associated Ministries, Tacoma Rescue Mission, Tacoma Needle Exchange, CLR, Reach, Coffee Oasis, RISE and MDC are all local nonprofits in need of better funding.
Thirdly, advocate. Publicly stand for those who get stepped on. Demand better constantly. Pay attention to your city council, county council, vote for the love of Jebus, call your reps, be the democratic thorn in their side needed to make sure all humans are treated with respect and dignity, hold politicians accountable.
If none of that is amenable, just be kind. Look your unhoused neighbors in the eye, greet them, learn their names, listen to their stories, make an effort to see them, hear them, respect them, stop thinking of them as a them but instead, us.