Homeless advocacy group agrees to leave vacant Tacoma school after ‘taking’ it over

TACOMA, Wash. — Facing police threats of arrest for trespassing, a group of advocates for the homeless and several people living without shelter agreed to leave the vacant Gault Middle School building after breaking though it boarded and locked doors and setting up a camp inside.

Tacoma Housing Now announced in a press release Friday that it “took” Gault Middle School for emergency pandemic housing. The school at 1115 E Division Lane has been vacant for more than a decade with plans to turn the site into mixed housing recently falling through.

The group demanded the city of Tacoma and Tacoma Public Schools work together to place Gault into a “permanent, community-controlled Community Land Trust,” according to its press release.

“It became just really urgent for us to get into the building,” said Rebecca Parson, media liaison for Tacoma Housing Now, who said homeless people in Tacoma are dying in the cold.

“Two people have died in the last week alone,” she said. “Both of exposure, one was outside sitting in a wheelchair, a senior, he died of exposure.”

But a Tacoma Public Schools spokesman said the 95-year-old building--which had been vacant since 2009, had been declared uninhabitable, and just breathing the air inside the building is “extremely dangerous.”

“The building is so full of mold and asbestos, workers have to wear special respirators inside, and they can’t stay in there for very long,” said Dan Voelpel with Tacoma Public Schools. “All the wiring and plumbing has been stripped out, and the roof is caving in.”

Parson told KIRO 7 one “resident’s” response was “I would rather risk asbestos in there than freeze out in the cold.”

Before dozens of Tacoma police officers moved in--many wearing hazmat suits--Tacoma city outreach teams offered shelter beds to the group. But advocates said there were not enough beds to take everyone who needed one, and they pointed out the need for permanent shelter, instead of the temporary offer from the city.

“Our primary demand is for the school district and the city of Tacoma to work together to put this building into a community land trust,” Parson said.

At 6 p.m. Tacoma police in hazmat suits and respirators ordered everyone in the building to leave, or face arrest.

“Our goal here is obviously not to make arrests,” said Tacoma police spokesperson Wendy Haddow. We want to ensure that everyone is out of this very unsafe building.”

Eventually, everyone inside came out, bringing supplies--some donated by neighbors of the school. Some accepted the offer for shelter.

Voelpel said the school district is liable for injuries inside the dilapidated building.

“We still own the building,” he said. “It has been chained up, locked up, boarded over and no trespassing signs posted on it to prevent people from going in there.”