One of Tacoma’s largest homeless encampments set for removal after multiple fires, city says

TACOMA, Wash. — A large homeless encampment beneath Interstate 705 in downtown Tacoma will be cleared next week, the city of Tacoma confirmed on Friday.

“Due to imminent threats to public safety, the City Manager has authorized staff to post the 705 encampment for removal and clean up,” city spokesperson Megan Snow said in an email statement to The News Tribune.

Notices were to be posted Friday with clean-up beginning Feb. 4.

“There are approximately 60-80 individuals at this location and outreach workers will begin focused work to provide resources for shelter beginning Tuesday, February 1. Outreach will continue through next week,” Snow said.

When asked about the imminent threats, Snow said there were several fires at the encampment this week that led to concerns from the fire department for the safety of the people beneath the overpass.

When asked whether this sweep had anything to do with the business summit held at the LeMay - America’s Car Museum on Wednesday, in which business owners asked for action by the city against crime, including addressing homeless encampments, Snow said it did not.

“It was really tied to public safety concerns,” Snow said.

WSDOT crews will be out later next week to inspect the infrastructure. In the past two months, crews have been out to that location three times to inspect the infrastructure.

Bill Lemke, executive director and co-founder of NW Furniture Bank, said he’s seen impacts from the encampment worsen over the past couple of years, primarily in 2021. NW Furniture Bank is located along Puyallup Avenue right next to the site.

“Our building has been shot. Our sign has been shot. We’ve had arrows shot into our parking lot,” Lemke said.

Lemke has witnessed the fires that occurred at the site and said in 2021 nine windows were busted out of the building. Abandoned cars make it difficult for volunteers and workers to get in and out of the area.

“It impacts our staff. They get demoralized,” Lemke said.

Lemke wrote city manager Elizabeth Pauli in September asking for help, and again in January, detailing the issues he’s seen. He said the system needs to find a way to get people living in the camp housing or other resources.

“The people under 705 are human beings and should not have to live as they do. It is inhumane what is going on there,” he said.

Speaking by phone Friday, Lemke told The News Tribune that he knows clearing the camp will help with the problems there. The NW Furniture Bank provides recycled, donated furniture to people in need, and Lemke said he sees the people living at the site as future clients.

“The system should get them into housing and or treatment,” he said.

Maureen Howard, a volunteer with the Tacoma-Pierce County Homeless Coalition, repeated the same question she’s had for years: “Where will they go?”

Howard said the city should not be conducting sweeps if people living in camps only get displaced.

“You cannot both say that you are incredibly concerned for the well-being of people experiencing homelessness and simultaneously not provide them with a place to live,” Howard said by phone Friday.

Howard said she knows it’s a complex issue, but that there’s still no clear plan for moving people who are unsheltered into shelter.

“The heavy-handed sweep response from the city to me is a desperation move,” Howard said. “They either don’t know how to invest in helping people from their tent or their vehicle into safe shelter or they don’t want to invest.”

This story has been updated to reflect that the Washington State Department of Transportation has no concerns at this time for the infrastructure of the highway due to the fires.

This story was originally published by The News Tribune.

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