This was an article I wrote for a blog that some friends and I run, The Melon. Tacoma is the largest city in Pierce County, Washington, though there are sizable jurisdictions just outside the city limits. This article is about homeless issues on the borders of these jurisdictions. I juxtapose two opposing views – one is an activist’s view and the other a professor’s – though both are seeking to ameliorate homelessness.
Several months ago a Midland community activist, Stacy Emerson, posted a video on YouTube documenting a homeless encampment behind a K-mart just outside Tacoma’s city limits in an unincorporated area of Pierce County. Emerson said she posted the video after months of unproductive interaction with the Pierce County police force regarding the growing encampments. Since the video was posted, all three encampments were cleaned up, one by hand, two by bulldozers.
Emerson told The Melon that she never determined who the children’s clothes seen in the video belong to. The circumstances suggested to Emerson that pedophilic activity was taking place in the encampment. A meth lab in the K-mart encampment was reported to the Pierce County Health Department, and prescription drug containers were reported to Emerson’s Neighborhood Patrol Duty for possible HIPAA violations. She says the encampment’s inhabitants likely took the bottles from K-mart’s dumpster, not from the store itself, but believes K-mart could be liable nonetheless.
Ever since an encampment on Golden Given & 72nd was plowed over two years ago, “campers then migrated across the border into my community,” Emerson says. Her Neighborhood Patrol Duty in Midland has made more than twenty arrests over the last two or three months near the K-mart encampment. The Tacoma Police and other law enforcement agencies may have arrested more too, she says. But the camps were “never ‘explored’ by social services” and the thinly-spread Pierce County police force can only give inadequate attention to the problem.
Richard Anderson-Connolly, Professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, says the enforcement of ordinances like anti-panhandling laws is “a micro-level approach to a macro problem. All they can do is move the problem to another jurisdiction.” The burden of addressing underlying structural inequalities, unemployment and mental health are shifted onto other localities since this is “one of their few options.”
“The dominant political paradigm is not only micro but also ‘get tough,’” Anderson-Connolly says, “much like our approach to crime or foreign policy and education.” This tends to serve the interests of the economic elite, produces a lot of “lucrative contracts”, and does not require economic redistribution. Anderson-Connolly argues that the legitimating ideology here is one that blames the victim.
Homelessness in Pierce County has gotten worse according to Emerson, while at the same time in Tacoma homelessness is getting better. Although Emerson agrees with the statement that Tacoma’s ordinances “merely push people into areas away from the city centers”, she believes the adoption of Tacoma-style ordinances would better serve the communities around Tacoma and clean up the homeless encampments in the short run, which she argues is a good strategy until the different jurisdictions can determine better ways to spend taxpayer’s money.
The City of Tacoma’s “crackdown efforts” like anti-panhandling, Alcohol Impact Areas (AIA), Housing First, and Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution (SOAP) have had a “tremendous impact on unincorporated communities,” especially Emerson’s, she says, since it borders the city. But she maintains now it’s time for the unincorporated communities themselves to pass legislation to crackdown on activities that homeless people resort to.
Anderson-Connolly characterizes this “get tough” approach as a prisoner’s dilemma between the non-cooperative jurisdictions. If one city pushes its homeless population out by enforcing these ordinances, other cities have the incentive to do the same in order to avoid the costs of helping people out of homelessness. While the optimal strategy may be for jurisdictions to cooperate effectively, “The high road is essentially blocked the low road equilibrium is the best one could hope for.”
Tacoma chose the “defection” strategy, Anderson-Connolly says, the one that in this case will lower each jurisdiction’s costs regardless of the other players’ strategies. This will most likely force other localities to do the same as Tacoma, “otherwise they get the worse possible outcome.”
While in support of Tacoma’s legal method, Emerson says what is more important is the inadequately-funded mental health program in Pierce County, paid for by the State of Washington. The homeless people she spoke to said they became homeless “as a result of making bad decisions,” and many become “mentally ill as a result of the hard life of homelessness.” The county “has now been without mental health services for almost two years,” having a significant causal impact on homelessness.
Anderson-Connolly is currently researching the Tacoma’s “encampment elimination project,” or what is often called by supporters the “Housing First Project”. When his research is available we’ll post it to The Melon. Emerson is a full-time community activist and says she will stay vigilant on issues regarding homelessness in Pierce County. Her website can be found at LifeInPierceCounty.com.
* picture from the Tacoma News Tribune.