City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda wants Seattle to open a large tent shelter to get more homeless people under roofs by winter. She's looking at a concept from LA, though Tacoma has recorded success with its own stability shelter.

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TACOMA — Nathaniel Damon Stewart had been living for three months in an unauthorized homeless encampment near the banks of the Puyallup River when Tacoma officials offered him and his fellow campers a trade: leave their camping tents for a large, industrial-style tent that the city set up less than a mile away.

Inside were neatly arranged rows of individual camping tents, one for each person. On site were case-management services, shower and laundry trailers and, maybe, a path to a permanent home for Stewart and his community from the previous site. 

“It’s kind of like we were living in hell,” said Stewart, 41, “and I came through the gates and I seen them in heaven.”

Tacoma’s site, opened in June 2017, is one of a series that have popped up across a West Coast struggling to address homelessness, as cities from San Diego to Sacramento are resorting to shelter strategies more commonly seen during natural disasters.

Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda is now pushing for a similar, temporary tent shelter in the Emerald City. She initially opposed the idea when it was floated by the King County Board of Health last month, but eventually agreed with the board’s recommendation that regional cities consider tent shelters as a way to get people inside before winter.

“This is a public-health concern … we don’t want people living outside on the street,” said Mosqueda.

Last week, as the Seattle City Council debated next year’s budget, Mosqueda asked for $3 million to be designated for such a site — a location has not been determined and funding has not yet been allocated — although another $2 million would be needed for operations, city staff said. The Tacoma site cost about $900,000 to set up and roughly $2.3 million a year to operate.

But in a city that has experimented with different kinds of homeless shelters — from tiny house villages to the Navigation Center — could this shelter result in more homeless people moving into permanent housing?

In Tacoma, a little more than a third of the people who left the tent shelter, called the stability site, over the last year and a half are confirmed to have moved into housing. That’s still more than double the success rate of Seattle’s tiny house villages in the first quarter of 2018.

Mosqueda said she wants to do more than just warehouse people in a large tent. She’s seen designs for a tent shelter in Los Angeles that will include on-site case management and other services that she said are more likely to entice homeless people to come inside. The Tacoma tent also offers those services, although Mosqueda has not yet visited the site.

If Seattle decides to pursue the tent option, officials in Tacoma and Los Angeles have advice: Have a long-term strategy to move people out of the shelter and into stable housing. Move forward with eyes wide open, and a clear idea of who the sites are designed to help and what services they need. Otherwise, temporary structures can quickly feel permanent. 

“This could be a good start for some people”

Tacoma’s sprawling white shelter sits within walking distance of the Tacoma Dome, tucked into an industrial neighborhood knotty with train tracks. Once inside a gated entrance, the immensity of the place becomes clear: like an army barracks in an airplane hangar, but with camping tents instead of bunks.

On a recent visit, a hint of  smoke hung in the air (smoking is banned inside) but the large room of tent after tent was mostly quiet. Visible were the signs of the people who lived there: a helium Happy Birthday balloon, and stacks of books. A framed painting, leaning against a tent, of women dancing in yellow dresses.

At 87 people, the shelter is near capacity. When residents first arrive, they are placed in one of about 60 individual tents inside the bigger structure and assigned a 90-gallon storage bin. Catholic Community Services runs the location and provides three case managers and one certified peer counselor on site every day.

When A.J. Adamson first moved in last January, she admits she had to adjust to such a big communal area, with little space separating neighbors. Smells, noise and the occasional disagreements spilled over into her assigned spot. But almost a year later, she is now on the site’s residential council and with other residents participated in an endurance obstacle-course race, something she never thought she could do.

“This could be a good start for some people,” Adamson said.

Both she and Stewart agree the tents give them an important sense of privacy, “even though the four walls are nylon,” Stewart said. “I think that’s important.”

As residents get more acclimated to living inside again, they can graduate to one of 20 trailers called pallet shelters, about the size of a very small kitchen, arranged just outside the larger tent. Each has a bunk bed, electricity and, importantly, a door that locks.

This is part of the site’s integration technique, the step-by-step process of getting residents ready for housing, said Joshua Waguespack, the site’s director of operations.

And that takes time. Many of the current residents are difficult to house because they are dealing with mental illness and substance-abuse issues, and many have been on the streets for years. Though Pierce County’s per-capita rate of homelessness is about five times smaller than King County’s, the number of people sleeping outside in the Tacoma area has doubled since 2015. Tacoma declared a state of emergency on homelessness in 2017.

“It’s not just processing people like fish,” Waguespack said. “If you go into it with a quick-fix model, the probability of success goes down.”

Of the 160 individuals who have left the Tacoma tent since June 2017, 59 got into permanent housing, almost 37 percent. For comparison, Seattle’s tiny house villages, budgeted at $4.3 million last year, had a combined exit rate of 17 percent in the first quarter of this year.

LA’s model is part of a overall plan

Opening a tent shelter to address the homelessness crisis in Seattle has been floated within government before. King County staff internally talked last spring about opening one, but instead moved forward with other ideas, according to emails obtained through a public-disclosure request.

But Mosqueda is among the first elected leaders to publicly press for one. Seattle Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said she was concerned at the potential cost but interested in the idea, noting that “Tacoma has shown it’s possible.”

“The question is, is it financially feasible,” Bagshaw said. “Everything we’re doing is trying to get 24/7 options that are better than a cardboard box” to sleep in.

Mosqueda doesn’t like the idea of Tacoma’s tents-inside-a-tent model; she is looking to a shelter that will soon open in Los Angeles’ Hollywood neighborhood. Like Tacoma, the centerpiece of the LA site will be a large, prefabricated tent, but each person will be assigned a bed, separated by partitions, almost like a wall dividing cubicles.

Los Angeles plans over the coming year to open 15 temporary shelters, of various designs, sited in neighborhoods across the city so they can serve homeless people already living in those areas, said Christina Miller, the city of Los Angeles’ senior project manager for homelessness strategies. Clean zones will be established around each site, where new encampments won’t be allowed but intensive outreach will continue to those people still on the streets.  

Los Angeles officials say the design of the sites matters less than knowing how the shelters fit into a larger housing plan — which, unlike Seattle, Los Angeles actually has.

This year, voters in Los Angeles city and county approved tax increases as part of a strategy to address homelessness, including $1.2 billion to subsidize construction of 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing over the next decade. The hope is that some of the people who move into the 15 temporary shelters can eventually transition into that new housing.

“It definitely needs to be an asset in a larger regional approach to address homelessness on the streets,” Miller said. “I think doing projects as individual stand-alones isn’t going to get the inflow and outflow that I’m certain Seattle leaders are trying to achieve.”

Tacoma lacks this kind of long-term housing strategy. More than a year into their operations, officials there are trying to adjust as they learn what works best for their clients.

Catholic Community Services is hoping the city will implement a rule that requires residents to start working with a care manager no later than 90 days after arriving at the site. It’s still not clear how long the site will be operational: The city is looking to extend its life through at least the end of 2019.

Meanwhile, Stewart now has a part-time job and is working on saving money.

He moved from the big tent into one of the pallet shelters two months ago. Now he has a real door, to a home he can stand up straight in.

“It gives you a sense of you accomplishing something,” he said.