A man gets water at one of the Tacoma encampments where water and portable toilets are being provided as the city gets ready to move residents. Credit: Matt M. McKnight/Cascade Public Media

Like Seattle, Tacoma has a homelessness problem so severe that city leaders have declared a state of emergency. But the city is taking a different approach than its neighbor to the north.

Tacoma is framing its emergency declaration as one of “public health.” It’s a bit more limited than the attempts in Seattle and King County, as well as others in Portland, Los Angeles, Honolulu and the state of Hawaii, where the emergencies are more generally about homelessness itself.

“Our goal isn’t to end homelessness or to solve homelessness,” Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said. “This effort is about reducing homelessness, engaging our community, engaging the homeless population and learning what we can learn about longer-term sustainable solutions.”

Strickland estimated that 500 people are homeless in Tacoma. According to the 2017 Point in Time Count, Pierce County as a whole had more than 1,300 experiencing homelessness, with 504 unsheltered during the late January count.

Strickland said the city focused on what is happening on the ground in Tacoma, rather than trying to study what others had done with their states of emergency. “It addresses the fact that many of the people living in camps were living in squalor,” Strickland said.

Crews on previous clearings of unsanctioned encampments  found garbage and human waste. Strickland said the conditions created a health hazard both for the people in the encampments and for the surrounding residences and businesses.

The city is spending six weeks assessing the needs of those currently living in encampments as well as providing services such as handwashing stations, porta potties and showers. These services have already begun to materialize as “pop-up” cleanup sites near encampments.

Clearing the encampments will occur in the second phase, which could start after the initial phase ends June 26, as the city establishes some form of temporary, transitional centers. “Every person will have different options,” Strickland said. “Some may just need help with first and last month’s rent and they can get housed in a regular apartment. Every situation is unique.”

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Originally written by Julia-Grace Sanders in CrossCut