A row of sinks at Tacoma's Stability Site
A row of sinks at Tacoma's Stability Site City of Tacoma

Tacoma, Washington, found that giving homeless people access to running water improves their comfort, dignity, and health, while reducing local pollution.

Last spring, as the homeless population swelled in the port city of Tacoma, Washington, it faced a problem: water everywhere, but almost none to drink.  

Of the city’s more than 210,000 people, 1,231 were living unsheltered in January 2017, up from fewer than 500 in 2015. By this spring, many residents—both housed and unhoused—were voicing concerns about living conditions and safety in the city’s encampments.

An outreach worker gives a homeless man a pair of gloves in Tacoma’s Wright Park. (AP/The News Tribune, Dean J. Koepfler)

In May, Marilyn Strickland, the city’s mayor, declared homelessness a public health emergency. She set out a three-phase plan, which began with sending social workers and public works employees to meet people in the encampments. The goal was to provide health services and work toward expanding residents’ housing options, whether through emergency pop-ups or transitional housing. (In a tougher vein, the city also banned public camping except in approved sites, a move that critics said may be unconstitutional.)

A lack of water is common in homeless encampments. People often don’t have clean water to drink or wash with—a problem when it comes to treating and preventing sickness, not to mention ensuring comfort and dignity. At the same time, if a community isn’t hooked up to plumbing, waste builds up quickly, and untreated waste from informal settlements can pollute local ecosystems. By providing running water and a way to deal with refuse, Tacoma officials hoped to address both problems.

In June, members of the city’s public works department went to a homeless encampment on the edge of the Puyallup River known as the Compound, where 40 people were living on an overgrown strip of unused public land. The officials dug a water line into the site, drilled in a spigot, and brought in hand-washing stations and portable toilets. They told the residents they would eventually have to move, either to a temporary, city-run housing facility called the Stability Site, or somewhere else off public property.

Meanwhile, by pumping out up to 30,000 gallons of waste a day, the city was able to remediate the site, which drains into a migration path for threatened salmon and steelhead that swim up the Puyallup.

Jeff Jenkins, assistant director of the city’s public works department, said the initial goal was to find out how to address residents’ immediate needs—to quench thirst, ameliorate sickness, and improve unsafe conditions—and also to gain their trust. Compound residents told him they had been taking drinking water from taps at nearby businesses as night.

“We gave them an opportunity to tell us what they wanted, and they said showers, laundry, bathroom facilities, and a way to wash their hands, and do dishes and cook,” Jenkins said. Water is “core to being alive, and it’s also a way ... to maintain a standard of cleanliness. It helps mitigate the effects of homelessness on both homeless people and the businesses around them.”

Water made a difference. So much so that, by the time the city closed the site on June 30, more than 100 people had moved to The Compound from other encampments to take advantage of the new resources. In the crowded camp, a few people tried to control access to the toilets as a bargaining chip, Jenkins said. But it was proof of the level of need in the city.

The Stability Site (City of Tacoma)
Workers install toilets at the Stability Site. (City of Tacoma)

By mid-summer, the team had moved onto the second phase of the plan: temporary housing at a site in the city’s Dome District. Officials turned the parking lot of an old municipal building into a 75-by-100-foot tent holding 60 smaller tents and showers, toilets, and sinks. The facility can accommodate a maximum of 85 people.

To make sure the new site wouldn’t have problems with water access or outflow, the city graded it so it tilted toward the street, letting stormwater run off into the sewer. To accommodate wastewater, the city built a 700-gallon sump pump on a float that expands when it’s full and can be easily drained into the public sewer system. Since the City of Tacoma owns its own water supply, it didn’t have to do any negotiating to get water to the site, which can be a problem in places with water shortages, or where the city gets its water from an outside provider, like a water district.

The Stability Site was supposed to close in October, but it’s been popular enough among residents and the broader community that it will now stay open through 2018—and maybe longer, depending on budget. Officials are trying to identify locations for the third and most difficult phase of the mayor’s plan: increased transitional housing in Tacoma and the surrounding county.

Strickland said in a statement that camp clear-out sweeps, which the city has tried in the past, didn’t work to combat risk or clean places up, so officials took a different approach. Initially, the idea of bringing in infrastructure to help transient populations raised some hackles among city residents, especially because it happened quickly and there was no public input on the first phase. The city then held public meetings and explained its plan, and over time the response grew more positive, Jenkins said.

Tacoma brought in Catholic Charities, which runs other, more traditional shelters in the city, to manage the Stability Site. On a sample week in September, the city found that they were turning away upwards of 80 people each night, double the number of people they are able to accommodate.

“The city is administering this with rules and regulations in mind, but also compassion. It’s not perfect; there are still issues, but to sit and do nothing is unforgivable,” said Zach Kiunenan, who owns a shipping company adjacent to the site.

Tacoma isn’t the only place wrestling with both water access and water pollution in homeless communities, particularly on the West Coast. Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland have all declared emergencies in response to the growth of their homeless populations, as have many smaller cities. They’re finding that addressing the water portion of the problem—both in terms of inflows and outflows—is complicated. It can be expensive to provide clean water, and it may seem like a distraction from the challenge of securing long-term housing, or, to some, an unearned freebie for the homeless.  

However, running water helps unsheltered people avoid stigma and remain integrated in society. And it may stop some public-health emergencies in their tracks. (This year saw deadly outbreaks of Hepatitis A in the homeless populations of San Diego and L.A.)

“Some of these folks that don’t have an income can go to charitable entities to get water,” Jenkins said, “but in a hot summer like last summer, that might not be enough.”

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