Tacoma housing crisis spurs action from community

As the housing crisis worsens, activists have begun taking it upon themselves to ensure the homeless needs are met.

This week, the Ledger dived into the Tacoma Housing Advocacy scene, interviewing two prominent activists; Former Congressional Candidate and Spokesperson of Tacoma Housing Now Rebecca Parson and Gerrit Nyland of the Pierce County Tacoma Coalition to End Homelessness. Both people, and both groups, have been doing advocacy work around the issue of homelessness in the Pierce County area. 

Homelessness in Tacoma was declared a State of Emergency in 2017 by Mayor Marilyn Strickland, when 1,300 people were experiencing homelessness during a count.

According to Pierce County’s point in time count in Jan. 2020, 1,800 people were found to be experiencing homelessness. Since the declaration of a homeless emergency, the rate of homelessness has only risen. There has subsequently been a rise in Housing Advocacy within the United States. From activists seizing unoccupied buildings to tenant lobbying groups, the issue has become a rallying call in Tacoma.

However, the organizations may have differing perspectives and disagreements on how to approach the issue. Nyland explained that if one wants to look at the problem of homelessness, they need to start at the housing market: make it cheaper to build. 

“So step one is making it cheaper to build housing … make it cheaper to build. I don’t care if it’s affordable housing or not you just have to have more housing stock,” Nyland said. 

They advocate following these things with three other interventions: one time financial assistance, Rapid Rehousing — which would find housing and cover one’s rent for 6 months — and finally, fully subsidized housing guaranteed to the day one dies. 

Parson pointed to an issue that runs deeper than simply shifting the market. “The cause is our profit driven housing system where so many people simply can’t afford it and we just need to build more public housing, social housing, or turn buildings we have into that.” 

While they stated they support longer term goals such as Community Land Trusts, they said their main focus right now was getting people places to sleep.  

“Some places have done Community land trusts, but as a kind of means to promoting homeownership, that’s really not what we’re interested in, I mean nothing wrong with homeownership but we just want to get people in buildings that have warm and dry beds,” Parson said. 

To this effect, Parson has called for the use of federal funds to pay for hotel rooms for the homeless via either the Cares Act or FEMA Public Assistance Funding. FEMA PAF guaranteed a 75 percent reimbursement from the federal government under the administration of Donald Trump, and was increased to reimbursement of 100% under Joseph Biden. This was echoed by Nyland, who expressed confusion as to why the City was not making use of the funds. 

“I do not understand the hesitancy. I know it’s hard money to use like that’s clear, it’s hard money to use but it’s not impossible money to use and both the city and county are using different parts of that type of money already,” he said. 

Aside from lobbying, direct action remains popular. Rebecca Parson and the Tacoma Housing Now group have expressed willingness to occupy unused property to use it as housing for the unhoused, a strategy known as ‘squatting.’ 

They had previously occupied Gault Middle School — an abandoned Middle School located in Tacoma that had potentially been slated to be turned over to the Tacoma Housing Authority for mixed housing and community center. THN had hoped for it to be turned into a community land trust. After being forcibly evicted from Gault, they attempted to stay in the Fife Travelodge, asking for the city to make use of FEMA PA funds, which resulted in their forcible eviction again. 

While there exists criticism of the direct action, Parson pointed to their results.

“Since Tacoma Housing Now started [three months ago] the city has added 195 new shelter beds … they’ve made the east side warming shelter 24/7, it used to be inclement weather only,” she said. “The fact that we’ve only been in existence for  three months now, and we’ve already gotten all these results that I mentioned earlier, indicates that our strategy and tactics are working.”

A concern that exists throughout activism is representation. Nyland explained the Coalition is constantly looking to hear the voices of those affected, but it can be difficult to get homeless folks present at meetings. 

Nyland acknowledges that to have the time and means to make it to these meetings is indicative of privilege that many of the homeless do not have.

Another way they plan on supporting the community is through the “Speakers Bureau.” Nyland said this program is designed to get the local community in touch with underprivileged people.

“The goal of that is to have people with lived experience to learn how to be really effective telling [their] own story and communicating that to people so that when there’s, you know, a church meeting that would like to have you know someone that’s homeless they’re like we have folks that are are prepared to come and speak right there they’re comfortable with it and we’re also using that as an opportunity.” 

Parson, on the other hand, explains that THN is led by activists that are homeless.

“The household members of the coalition make the decisions … Every time the city would offer something we would go back to, you know, the members of the camp and ask them, ‘This is what they’ve offered, do you want to accept it?’ And they would tell us no. When we would say ‘Okay, the city is telling us that there’s this asbestos so we have to leave it’s not safe. Do you want to leave?’ And they said ‘No, because we prefer asbestos to freezing to death’.”